A Lone Shrew Discovered at Homerton College

Over the last few days I have teetered on the edge of a Shakespeare coma. Last Wednesday I watched the BBC’s Henry VI part 1 and Branagh’s Much Ado followed by Twelfth Night featuring Helena Bonham Carter (among others) on Thursday morning. But that wasn’t enough and besides live theatre is a different animal entirely and – I think often with Shakespeare – much better. So, on Thursday night I went to see The Taming of the Shrew over in Cambridge in the grounds at Homerton College. It was part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, a well established Shakespeare outdoor festival headed up by artistic director Dr David Crilly now in its 27th year. As I write this the festival is almost at a close for another year but is well worth a visit next summer. It was the first time I’ve been to a production at this festival despite growing up in Cambridge but it was well worth a trip. I’ve managed to book-end the summer with Shakespeare al fresco kicking off in Oxford a few weeks ago with As You Like It at Wadham College which you can read about here and ending in Oxford’s counterpart: Cambridge.

The play is one that seems to divide people, some branding it “deeply misogynistic” and so refusing to see it on that count, whereas others see Shakespeare as being more ironic in his ‘taming’ approach.

This was a rollicking and at times raucous production where you were in the minority if you didn’t end up rolling on the floor or having an impromptu piggy-back ride, and that was just for those who’d had too much mulled-wine.. No really it was a production loaded with very physical humour but none the worse for it. Sometimes there’s a humour for humours sake because we need the audience to at least exit the show with a smile kind of attitude and this is particularly dangerous territory with outdoor summer shakespeare I think.

Punctuated by the popping of champagne corks, the rustling of people’s picnics, and the blustering of the wind through the leaves of the nearby apple trees, the show interweaved the bog-standard please turn off your phones kind of speech in Shakespearean tongue into the play itself beginning with “welcome unto the Cambridge Shakespeare festival..” And leading smoothly into the show itself, no doubt this will be common practice to veterans of the festival or perhaps it was unique. It made the move to renaissance territory from the hustle and bustle of the early evening streets of Cambridge much smoother as did the serene setting.

The production was staged in the orchard of Homerton College, well away from the busy main road and a cosy curved seating set-up which ensured the retention of a comfortable ‘British’ distance (the classic must-leave-a-seat-gap-in-the-cinema is exactly what I mean) whilst ensuring that everyone had a good view of the action.

The orchard in question

There was a good and diverse crowd which drew my attention again (you’d have thought I’d be getting used to this by now) to the amazing way that Shakespeare never fails to draw people together. From the Italian blokes in front of me who followed the play along on their laptop throughout the show dropping brief whispers of translation to each other every now and then, to the girls behind who demanded to know when Malvolio would be showing up in the play, to the older couple sat close by who were clearly Shakespeare-regulars (he spent the interval complaining about a recent production of Macbeth where, and I quote, “it was so modern that Macbeth came out in a jeep. I mean really!”), there were also a handful of children – though something tells me they probably missed (thankfully) quite a lot of the jokes. But Shakespeare perhaps like a fine wine, or a self-assured cliche loving 40-year-old, gets better with age. No, perhaps not better, but more exciting, engaging and interesting as new ages – and no I don’t just mean the double entendres – open themselves up to us.

The stage itself was filled with minimal props and the trees at either end were used to great effect. Staging it in the orchard added another dimension enitrely to lines like “there’s small choice in rotten apples” as the audience glanced around in amusement. Stage right was a bench but of more significance was a tree stage left which was used throughout as a hiding place, and might as well have born fruit of dramatic irony as characters fell behind its trunk in attempts at subtle-tree or merely a spot of eaves dropping.

Cloaks and their colours were used to differentiate between characters, this was particularly useful later in the evening as the daylight faded. Tranio I think was the most memorable, his cloak seemed almsot imported from Dracula – as though the costume crew read transylvanian in place of his name – the red lining simply added to this giving another dimension when the cloaks were traded as servant became master and vice-versa in the wooing mission of Lucentio for Bianca. The switching of cloaks by Tranio and Lucentio was the first of many cape changes – Tranio revelled in his new identity toying with new and more extravagent pronounciations of his new name and sporting richer fabrics by the second as his bright blue hat and golden cape of his first scene with a new identity indicated.

Katherine and Bianca had almost matching dresses and only changed once, both into (presumably) the same wedding dress. The other was a muted pink piece. Like most productions this was a strictly no-photographs-allowed show however, by happy coincidence, a couple of the cast had dropped in earier to the same cafe as me and the owner took this shot of Katherine and Petruchio.

As I mentioned before what struck me most about this production was the sheer volume as words and people were thrown about the stage. Katherine was, of course, by far the loudest. The shock of her words reduced men to quivering wrecks. In her first scene Hortensio fell to the floor in shock at the venom Katherine managed to fill her words with. The men were visibly scared of her, jumping when she shouted “ha!” and this helped to set up a power dynamic for the rest of the play thus giving the taming reversal greater effect. In the production from the off-set Katherine was presented as a force to be reckoned with, and feminists be assured she didn’t lose her character at the end through her taming but merely spoke her mind, or more often the mind of her husband, in more melodious tones.

This production seemed to associate loudness and bawdy behaviour with the lower (not class but nature) and more juvenile amongst its characters – in general. A clear example of this was the entrance of Petruchio and Grumio. Grumio was a character full of life and lo and behold she ran around the stage with a baguette, picked up men and knocked them to the floor and all-in-all behaved as close to hyperactive but very clever child as you can envisage. The men who fell victim to her antics were left pinned to the ground and crying like babies. As I said this was a very vocal and physical production. Not quite featuring the physical palpability of The Globe’s approach but it wasn’t far off.  With all of this in mind it meant that Katherine’s change from a loud-mouthed girl to a more sedate woman also appeared to be a kind of coming of age. A maturation from the low base tones of her youthful spite to a determined lady with a better handle on her temper. This coming-of-age theme is often pulled out in productions of this play (take the loose adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You as a handy example) but it was the first time I had seen volume and overtly physical behaviour used as the primary method to indicate this.

Back to the cape’s for a second, Petruchio’s sporting of a purple cape (brighter even than Gremio – one of Bianca’s suitors who looked to be old enough to be her father’s contemporary) on his first entrance seemed to suggest his hunger for power and wealth – the main qualities that make Katherine an appealing conquest for him. In case you’re not familiar with the play, disguise is a big part of it and it’s not just for fun that Tranio and Lucencio swap attire. The disguised Lucencio plots to take Bianca through the classic girl-falls-for-teacher tactic the problem is he’s got competition in the form of Hortensio who is, yep you guessed in disguise as a professor. Hortensio takes up a post as Bianca’s music teacher (I couldn’t watch him without having Edwin Drood déjà vu moments, I blame Jasper the music teacher and the Drood read-along I’ve been doing recently). Both men wore black cloaks when they put on their professor disguises as though they were under the disguise of subtly and sobriety when in reality their passions were burning below.

The proud Petruchio ready to woo his wealthy bride brags about his fearless nature, and as he uttered the line: “Have I not in my time heard lions roar?” he leaped onto the back of the unsuspecting Lucencio who looked on in amazement. It was as if they were emphasising this fearless wasn’t just talk, even though Petruchio seemed to be rather fake to me. Then again by the end he proves he’s not quite as shallow as he seems from the off-set.

There was considerable banter by Bianca with the audience as she swiftly shifts from upset daughter desperate to date and angry at the injustice to laughs with the audience at her fortune with two professors not to mention other suitors vying for her love. The wooing has been brought inside right under her father’s nose and boy is she taking advantage of it. She well and truly played the younger sister card to all its worth. This further infuriated the already vocal Katherine whose jealousy and anger at the circumstances whereby she will be married against her wishes when her concerns are far from love reminded me a little of Baby at the beginning of Dirty Dancing who will of course switch dramatically from one concerned with equality, justice and loving others merely in theory to the more – er – practical. Passions gain another dimension as play and film progress.

This production enjoyed extracting out a laugh from the audience at almost any opportunity (though we weren’t too hard to please), taking the line “His name is Licio, born in Mantua” as an example: as though unable to remember his lines Hortensio tries to step in claiming to be Romeo, born in Verona accompanied with great laughter.

Playing with dramatic irony there were many moments in the play which might just as well have been accompanied by a wink to the audience, as the most unsubtle gestures to indicate emotion were employed. Part and parcel perhaps of an outdoor Shakespeare comedy for a diverse audience, though it doesn’t have to be this way! Lucencio (playing professor of classics) grinned smugly when his name was praised and I found myself having As You Like It flashbacks – so much disguise Shakespeare! It made me wonder did his first audiences have this. I certainly think mental links whether between characters, plot lines or plays themselves must’ve been second nature, just like we compare TV shows or pop-songs today.

This was definitely a particularly punny performance in fact I’ve got a neat list of puns they played on and it’s quite substantial. The most successful was perhaps the “fiddler” pun of act II scene 1 which was made more comical with the entrance of Horensio with a broken lute hanging over his shoulder the neck and strings dislocated from the rest of the body distraught that he’d had to teach the shrew and not the lady he wished to woo. Inevitably of course “come” was played on too – though this was a family-friendly performance so PG it remained, for the most part.

In line with the let’s-get-physical approach of this production was the relationship of Katherine and Petruchio as he grabbed her wrist and urged her to come accompanied of course by much shrieking and screaming from Katherine. As was her relationship with her sisters professors who she literally undermined by pulling their chairs from underneath them.

Being an outdoor production (and a very chilly one for August – the interval mulled wine was very welcome) there were the occasional lines which drifted off into the wind and – like The Globe – the performance was sporadically interrupted by planes flying over to the local airport even stalling the action at one point which shattered the already broken fourth wall beyond repair.

The pre-tamed Katherine could be seen best in her attitude to her father as she vowed “I shall be angry” and angry she was. She screamed Ah! Scaring all in her presence and as they froze they only melted back to human form with the arrival of the intermission shortly after a brief silence with the line, “now we’re going to break..” The power of her words was clear.

Clearly it was a night for déjà vu as the line “thereby hangs a tale” took me straight back to As You Like It which I think is probably its most famous instance though a quick search pulls up 5 references in Shakespeare in as many plays, so it’s not unique to As You Like It:

As You Like It “And thereby hangs a tale” (II.vii.28)

Othello “Whereby hangs a tale, sir?” (III.i.9)

The Merry Wives of Windsor “Well, thereby hangs a tale” (I.iv.144)

The Taming of the Shrew “thereby hangs a tale” (IV.i.50-1)

The Two Noble Kinsmen “and thereby hangs a tale” (III.iii.41)

But hanging tales aside, back to the play in hand. The second half featured mainly Katherine being tamed and kicking up a good fuss before mellowing somewhat, Bianca on the other hand proved a drunken and somewhat immature bride for the teacher who finally wooed her, Lucencio. One of my favourite moments was the acting of Nathaniel who had to play Troilus the dog and even have his belly scratched. Renaissance-style imaginations were of course required but the character doubling (it was only a cast of 10) added more humour rather than detracting from the drama. As part of the taming Katherine was offered a string of sausages which were subsequently thrown from character to character unfortunately they were not later fried for the audience – perhaps next time! As Katherine slowly grew more obedient to her husband the way he manipulated her, even the way she dressed as he rejected those ‘fashionable’ garments reminded me of Vertigo and the [Spoiler Alert] creepy replication found in that film. Whilst we know here it’s to make a point and to slowly sway her over to his side – a bit like Amy with Sheldon in Big Bang Theory on their super-Mario soundtrack date evening – it can seem to modern eyes a somewhat unnecessary exertion of power as he treats her almost like a puppet, then again I suppose you could say Katherine gets a healthy taste of her own medicine. Either way he’s successful and manages to tame the stubborn Katherine whilst taming himself from a crazy man who marries for money and can barely dress himself for his wedding day to a husband who respects his wife whilst desiring her to listen to him.

The production managed to retain a healthy balance between eeking the meaning as well as the humour from the play and presenting it to us, fake identities and all with the bass turned right up and klutziness – or rather play-fighting – the order of the day.

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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