What do we do with The Taming of the Shrew? Scholars argue over whether the play celebrates the dehumanization of half of humanity or acts as a cautionary tale against it, with some suggesting that the sexism would actually have put Shakespeare’s contemporaries ill at ease. It’s difficult and it’s knotty. Do we try to reconcile its bleak misogyny with our contemporary culture? Do we underplay it as playful comedy? Do we decide to adapt it into a fun-loving musical or a teenage rom-com? Or do we deem it too problematic even for Shakespeare’s problem plays and simply abandon it?
Caroline Byrne decides to tackle it head-on with intrepid insight and calculated vision. Set around the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland, Byrne evokes a moment of revolution and an ideology of freedom. It’s only ever peripheral, but the bodhran and fiddle droning in the background successfully remind us of both the liberation movement and the continuing subjugation of people a hundred years on.
If Katherine’s a shrew, then this shrew is shrewd. Byrne strips the Christopher Sly play-within-a-play device and in its place puts Aoife Duffin’s Katherine center stage. Instead of encasing and distancing the narrative, Byrne lets Katherine speak first. Duffin’s lyrically-lead songs display a level of interiority and intimacy that are simultaneously affective and rebellious. She sings ‘We are not numbered in song’ as if it’s she’s Patti Smith, chilled yet ferocious, stoic yet biting.
In many ways this is Byrne’s agenda, to number and make visible women often forgotten and buried by history. The male servants Tranio and Grumio are played by female actors (Imogen Doel and Helen Norton). Amy Conroy’s Widow, Hortensio’s wife-to-be, appears onstage in all-black throughout the play. Her mere presence makes laughable the play’s contorted resolution; she shows her shock and discontent as Hortensio and Gremio try to woo Bianca. She also engages with Katherine throughout the visually stupendous wedding sequence amidst slow-motion festivities and a caged Katherine substituted for a may-pole. As such, Conroy evokes an image of Katherine and Bianca’s mother, another entirely absent female character.
The first half’s buoyancy is weighed down by the vivid and discomforting imagery of the second. The humour, so effectively executed by Doel, Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Bianca, Louis Dempsey’s Vincentio and Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio feels as if it’s part of another play. As MacLiam reveals a cruel undertow in his Petruchio, the comedy slowly drifts away.
But perhaps that’s Byrne’s other mission, to entice us with seemingly light-hearted sexism only to then confront us with its implications later on. Katherine remains in her ripped and ragged wedding dress. A slanted table and ashen bed act as Petruchio’s only furniture on which exhausted Katherine can barely lie-down. Byrne bravely moves with the current of the text towards its muddy and uncomfortable conclusion.
The ending is hard because it’s a resolution. Katherine acquiesces and her actions make Petruchio a winner. This is a difficult play done at its best. It feels as if we are left adrift, yet the beat of the bodhran in the final dance hints at something more. If peace here is imprisonment, it is and will remain an unsettled peace.
The Taming of the Shrew is on until 6th August 2016. Click here for more information.