It may be hard to believe, but Katy Stephens wasn’t particularly into Shakespeare before joining the RSC in 2006. “I thought Shakespeare was for posh people,” she tells me, “It was for academics and intellectuals. I didn’t realise it was truly for me until I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and started to investigate Shakespeare myself and found these things that really touched me.” Since taking on the roles of Margaret of Anjou and Joan of Arc in the now-historic Histories Cycle, Stephens has been in a “love affair” with the Bard (“Oh, why don’t you just marry Shakespeare?!”, her son says).
She was a member of the two long-ensembles under Michael Boyd (“a hero as far as I’m concerned”), playing characters as diverse as Regan and Rosalind, and last year she returned as part of the ensemble in the Swan with roles in Titus Andronicus (reviewed by us in October) and Candide. Now, Stephens is in rehearsals for Michael Fentiman’s ‘First Encounter’ production of The Taming of the Shrew, which has a twist: all the genders have been swapped.
This, inevitably, does some interesting things to a play which can often be described as ‘sexist’; for a start, Stephens believes that she and Forbes Masson (who are playing Petruchio and Kate respectively), are “more sympathetic” to the other due to the inverted roles, and that “we’ve met in the middle. Our Kate and Petruchio are against the rest of the world – they’re a pair of misfits finding each other”. Regarding the whole sexism argument, Stephens suggests it’s not as clear-cut as we may think; alongside the fact that the play’s ‘sister’ work, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher, would have balanced out the argument, she suggests that in the end speech, “for Kate to be saying that your husband is your lord and your master was quite developmental because it was moving away from the idea of God being your lord and your master. In its way, it was actually quite a progressive move for Kate to be saying these things.”
Either way, what the play boils down to is a “love story” between two “psychologically complex people who meet each other’s match”. Fentiman’s streamlined edit, which runs at just over an hour (“There’s so much ballast that you can get rid of in Shakespeare that means you still have the heart of the piece somewhere”, Stephens observes), focusses on a Kate and Petruchio who find themselves fighting “the flashiness of cash,” with a Petruchio who “isn’t as rich as he says he is” and has been emotionally scarred by the trauma of the battlefield, making him softer than we may imagine. “One of the most beautiful thing Petruchio says is ‘Is the jay more precious than the lark/ Because his feather’s are more beautiful?/ And neither, Kate, are you.’ And actually, what an amazing, wonderful, beautiful, socialist, egalitarian thing to say. It’s lovely.”
Michael Fentiman’s note to the cast at the beginning of the process was “I want you to just play, I want us to just put the costumes on and play and see what happens” (there are no “sausages down trousers”, apparently). In turn, this has led to a “warm, democratic” rehearsal room, which has been a welcome respite to Stephens following years of tragic roles. Indeed, even though she doesn’t “take [her] characters home” with her, after finishing the long run playing Tamora, Stephens found that “at about seven o’clock I would suddenly feel really weepy. It was like my body almost had a muscle memory of that feeling at the same time every day.” To do a play where “No one dies!” has thus been hugely enjoyable, even if Fentiman has asked her “to stop thinking so much and let rip.”
The idea of the ‘First Encounter’ series is to invite audiences in who may have never seen a Shakespeare production live before. I suggest that it’s interesting the RSC have started to launch this initiative with such a radical re-thinking of a play, but though Stephens admits there are questions over whether the company is giving its audience a “true” Taming of the Shrew, she tells me that the “real challenge with this is to make it accessible but to not patronise or condescend in any way.”
This is, of course, a difficult thing to achieve, but Stephens is passionate about opening up the Shakespearean canon to audiences, no matter what title its working under: “I think that should be true of all Shakespeare productions, so that whatever age you’re aiming at, whatever audience you’re aiming at, it should be really accessible for everyone.”
There was no guarantee that Stephens would return to the company after 2011, but when Fentiman asked her back for Titus, she “jumped at the chance”: “In this day and age, you don’t expect to work with a company for so long. Being in the same company this long has meant I’ve had time to learn loads of stuff and focus on my craft without worrying where the next job is coming from. It’s given me a really good stationary place to develop as a performer.”
Petruchio could well be her last role for the RSC (though she’d love to play Antony or Henry V, she tells me), so it’s no surprise Stephens wants to make the most of it. “This feels really special”, she says, “and a bit like a pinnacle of the work that I think has been developed with the company over the last few years. Now we’re going to take it to people rather than expect them to come to us. Young people are going to see Shakespeare in their own schools with a wonderful company of actors. If it is the time I say goodbye to the RSC, it feels like the most important thing I’ve done since I’ve been here. I want everyone to love Shakespeare as much as I do.”
Main image by Donald Cooper: Katy Stephens as Tamora.
The Taming of the Shrew is at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6th – 8th February before touring schools around the UK.