Beshrew My Very Heart
Chris Abraham may have come up with a critic-proof gimmick to open his latest production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Abraham’s production begins with an induction that, even more clearly than Shakespeare’s, lets us know that we are supposed to have an intellectually-distanced relationship with the material to come. The actors address the audience in their own names and voices, and begin to talk about the play in a somewhat academic manner (there’s a wedding dress on stage which they talk about as a signifier; that kind of thing) before being interrupted from the audience by Christopher Sly, a British-born Canadian theater blogger who is having trouble finding his seat.
Sly (played by Ben Carlson, who returns as Petruchio in the play proper) protests the director’s liberties with blog-characteristic belligerence, moving from the audience to the stage as stage management and then security try unsuccessfully to bring him under control. Finally, he’s knocked out cold – and when he comes to, the actors commence to play the trick from Shakespeare’s own induction on him, telling him he’s a lord, presenting him with a “wife” (a male actor in drag), and telling him they have a play for him to see.
Having been so comprehensively and preemptively mocked, I suppose I’m a fool for taking the bait and offering an opinion – on an actual blog, no less – about the production. But I feel compelled to, because while the opening delighted me, by the end I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable at a production of a Shakespeare play than I was after this Shrew.
Mind you: I’m not saying the production is a bad one. Nor am I even saying that I disliked it, much less that it was the worst production I’ve seen. (That honor belongs to Richard Maxwell’s staging of Henry IV part 1, which I saw over a decade ago, and walked out of after 20 minutes.) Indeed, I plan to see the production again later in the run, and I would urge anyone planning a trip to Stratford to engage with Abraham’s take by seeing it as well.
But it did feel like a production designed to make me dislike the play. And what made me uncomfortable was that it achieved that effect by just doing the play, faithfully to a fault, right down to the pumpkin pants.
Shrew is a complicated play, and announces its complexity from its first moments, with Shakespeare’s induction involving a drunken Christopher Sly whom a party of toffs decide to fool into believing he is a lord, who then gets to see a play – The Taming of the Shrew – that constitutes the rest of the text. We never return to Sly at the end, never find out whether he learns the truth of his deception, and that lack of closure invites us to wonder what our relationship to the play he watches is supposed to be, and our relationship to him as fellow spectators thereof. Are we, if we enjoyed the play, drunken fools, to?
But that play, to my mind, is itself more complex than it appears on the surface, a genuine and touching love story that Shakespeare deftly hides inside, and uses to explode, a genre – the “shrew play” – about a husband with a hectoring wife. I say explode because Kate is as atypical a shrew as Hamlet is a avatar of revenge. Just as Hamlet, far from cleverly plotting his vengeance (as in the original source material), instead comments obsessively on his inability to take it, Kate, far from hectoring, haranguing and trying to control her husband, is enraged by other men’s efforts to control her, and bitter about her inability to attract anything resembling affection from anyone in her life. This is not the story of a man getting out from under the thumb of a domineering woman, and turning the tables on her, but of a man choosing a difficult woman whom nobody else sees the virtue of.
And then, yes, schooling her in how to live with him. There is no way around the profound power differential implied by that schooling, and I can fully understand why that stings for many women, notwithstanding that Shakespeare also wrote plays (e.g., As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale) where a woman puts a man through schooling necessary for him to be a fit companion. My experience of most good productions of Shrew, though, is akin to my experience of “The Philadelphia Story” – that is to say, I’m aware of the power differential between the female lead and her male “tutor,” and aware that her schooling is painful, even cruel, and that all of this is problematic. But I’m also aware of a real, mutual love, and a sense that his love is for this woman, at her best and most authentic; that the story isn’t about breaking her spirit but freeing it from its self-imposed bonds; and that the point isn’t that she should become meek and subservient but – well, yar.
That is not the feeling that I got from director Chris Abraham’s Shrew.
Instead, by doing the play as if it were what it announces itself to be, a typical shrew play of the period, Abraham makes it impossible – I hope – for any sensitive viewer to fully go along with the story being told.
The discomfort builds slowly, as the early scenes of the play are simply comic – and there’s nobody I’d rather watch perform the comedy of Kate’s inchoate rage than the divine Deborah Hay. But even in these scenes, I had the sense that I was being asked to participate in a cruel spectacle, because laughter like mine had helped make Kate who she is. By the time Petruchio had abducted his new bride from her wedding, I felt something was badly off. This Petruchio felt less comically zany than genuinely furious – and this Kate looked authentically frightened of what might now befall her.
As well she might have been. The Petruchio we see at home is not merely violent with his servants but downright cruel with Kate. The physical violence is played cartoonishly by those on receiving end, but Carlson’s Petruchio seems to mean every punch and shove. Rather than feigningly mad in his assessment of the food, her new clothes, and so forth, he very nearly spits his lines in his wife’s face, and tears her cap with real hostility. His only unconvincing statement is that he does this all out of perfect love; his protestations of kinder purpose read more of weary determination than of affection.
And bit by bit, Kate’s spirit is broken. When they meet an old man traveling on their way back to Kate’s father’s house, and Petruchio calls him a young maiden, Kate goes along – but not in the madcap spirit in which I’ve usually seen this scene played. Instead, she is hoping against hope that perhaps perfect submission if not sweet music will soothe her savage beast. And then there’s the kiss in the street. Never before have I felt this affection to be coerced rather than coaxed; never have I been more chilled by Petruchio’s “Is this not well?”
The final scene, where Kate reveals herself to have become a new, and newly tractable wife, is always a tough one for directors aiming not to be horrible male chauvinists, and is frequently given a twist that undermines Kate’s speech about the need for female subservience – some suggestion of collusion between husband and wife to win the bet, or an exaggerated delivery that makes it clear this is a performance, or something. But Hay plays it straight. Her Kate has finally learned that a quiet marriage requires absolute obedience to her rightful lord. And Carlson’s Petruchio is authentically relieved that his plan worked at last, is ready to love her and be loved, and contemptuous of fools like Lucentio (Cyrus Lane) who think they can acquire a compliant wife, without investing the necessary personal effort. His beloved Bianca (Sara Afful) looks sure to be a shrew to him, not because he chose poorly but because he has not the stomach to tame her.
I want to be very clear: this is all played very well, and effectively. And it’s awful. In the past, I’ve found Shrew to be one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies. I could not laugh other than bitterly at the bulk of this Shrew – I had trouble even applauding at the end – and I suspect that was deliberate. Abraham’s production is too well-constructed and well-played for it not to be.
But I wonder to what end. Marriage is, among more pleasant things, an arena of conflict. And those Shakespearean comic couples who look like they might find marital happiness – Viola and Orsino, Beatrice and Benedick, Rosalind and Orlando – none of them seem like they will never fight. They just seem like they know each other, and that they love each other, and that will make a difference. Meanwhile, those who look like they likely won’t find happiness – Portia and Bassanio, say, or Hermia and Lysander, or Helena and Bertram – what’s missing is that knowledge. I have always in the past counted Kate and Petruchio among the former rather than the latter. Not this time.
If Petruchio’s plan of awful rule and right supremacy is a terrible route to peace, love and quiet life, even if they appear to work at first, then what is the answer to Petruchio’s challenge?
“He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak: ’tis charity to show.”
It cannot be “make a better choice of wife” because that is Lucentio’s mistake. It must be that there is something in what Petruchio is up to other than cruelty. That something is precisely what Abraham has deliberately undermined so that we may see the cruelty as cruelty. That something is comedy, is playfulness, is humor.
I venture there’s not a husband alive who has not said, “evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!” many a time in his married life, the only question being whether he is more inclined to mutter it or to shout. And, whether he says it with humor. Because that, ultimately, is the best test of health and happiness in that marriage – does he find it funny that he feels, and sounds, like Petruchio, or does he not. If he can laugh, then maybe so can she.
If he cannot, well, he may win a sullen obedience or he may not – or she may of him, or she may not. But love? I have my doubts.
The Taming of the Shrew will be performed on Stratford’s Festival Theater stage through October 10th.