Shrewd changes

27th June 2003 at 01:00
The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare's Globe, London That most problematic of Shakespeare's plays for feminists is about to be performed by an all-female cast, with Kathryn Hunter as Kate and Janet McTeer as Petrucchio. Director Barry Kyle says that, in any case, to see the play in terms of simple sexual politics misses the point.

Katherine's speech of submission at the end of the play, the "destination" speech to which everything appears to lead, seems to suggest that a happy woman is one who has found the right man, but, says Kyle, "it is also about the masterservant relationship and there are masterservant relationships all over The Taming of the Shrew, often with people acting in their opposite roles".

Lucentio, suitor to Bianca, Kate's younger sister, appears as a tutor, Cambio, while his servant Tranio poses as Lucentio. Besides, this is a play within a play, performed to drunken Christopher Sly who is treated like a lord while the lord behaves like a servant. In other words, this is often a topsy-turvy world. "Disguise is a big part of the play. To a degree Katherine and Petrucchio are in disguise, playing stereotypical roles; the play deals with the slow removal of disguise."

When the play begins, Kate is clearly what we would call depressed. "She is described as in the dumps - an expression we still use - which to the Elizabethans meant a sad song. She believes she is the victim of a mercantile way of treating women - as indeed she is - and has nothing but contempt for her younger sister who plays the game. She behaves violently to Bianca and it would be false to sentimentalise that. She has something of the quality of Shylock in that, although she is forced into her situation to a degree, she chooses to present the most extreme version of herself - and, in that respect, her behaviour in the last scene is all of a piece. She achieves a degree of freedom when let out of the identity into which she is locked, partly by herself."

Barry Kyle is keen to point out that both Katherine and Petrucchio go "on a journey". Any actor who plays him will tell you, he says, that Petrucchio is changed by his experience of events. "He has a growing respect for Katherine. It is true that he creates a climate of terror in his household but she finds herself mediating, taking the part of others, which is unusual for her. She is taken out of herself. Shakespeare provides private access to Petrucchio; Kate is not a soliloquy character, which accounts for why Petrucchio is the play's 'engine'. But the parts are written with equal linguistic flair and they are both complete characters, not commedia dell'arte conventions."

Playing the text in Elizabethan dress brings us, says Kyle, closer to how its first audiences must have perceived it. "We have to try to understand the undertext of the play in the 1590s. The country was being governed by an extremely independent, extremely powerful woman, frightening because she had no husband and thus no heir and people were anxious about what might happen next - the country could decline into civil conflict. Elizabeth herself was referred to as 'shrew'. What does it take to partner a strong, independent woman?"

The play-within-a-play structure makes it clear that this is a group of people putting something on. "It's as if they might be trying to design a perfect man for Elizabeth."

Although audiences tend to accept cross-gender playing quite quickly, Kyle says it is clearly relevant that, this time, the play will have, literally, a female voice.

From August 10; September 6, Elizabeth and Kate study day. Tel: 020 7401 9919 020 7850

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