A kinky twist to taming the Shrew

Suppose you’re an actress playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. You’ve worked hard in the first half of the play to prove that you’re the most disagreeable young woman in Padua. How can you possibly be convincing in the final act, when you must profess and practice wifely submission and obedience?

It’s ever harder, I would think, than the job of an actor playing Othello, who must somehow show a transformation in his feelings toward Desdemona, so that his full-blown murderous rage won’t come as a surprise.

Irene Poole as Katherina and Evan Builung as Petruchio

This year’s Shrew at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), reviewed by Emsworth in this post, Irene Poole, as Katherine, attacks the challenge in a unexpected way. There’s sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio (Evan Buliung) from their first scene together, and it grows as the insults mount and the blows fly. The hungrier she gets, and the shorter on sleep — the more he teases and torments her, you know the play — the more it seems that this Katherine is being drawn into kinky role-playing that will lead to the consummation of her marriage.

And so, in Katherine’s final re-education session, when Petruchio teaches her that the sun is the moon when he says it is, and that it is the sun again when he says so, Katherine agrees with a triumphant gleam in her eye and a mocking laugh:

Petruchio: I say it is the moon.

Katherine: I know it is the moon.

Petruchio: Nay then you lie, it is the blessed sun.

Katherine: Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind.

Katherina and Petruchio

With this scene, we understand that Katherine (as played by Irene Poole) is now fully in on Petruchio’s nasty little game — and she’s gotten to like it.

Thus, when Petruchio lays a wager with Hortensio and Lucentio as to whose wife is the most submissive, Katherine knows how to play her part. She ends her “bound to serve, love and obey” speech by offering to let her husband step on her hands.

Delighted with his new playmate, Petruchio is ready for the game to be consummated: “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.”

Will Petruchio always be dominant in this loving relationship? We doubt it. From an earlier scene, in which Katherine ties up her sister and flogs her, we already have a good inkling that Katherine will like giving as well as receiving.

Lucy Peacock as Grumio

This show’s director, Peter Hinton, prepares the audience for twisted love-play by his decision to cast Petruchio’s servant Grumio as a woman playing a woman (Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock). As one might suppose, this adds sexual overtones to their relationship of master and servant. In their first scene together (Act I, Scene 2), Grumio jests suggestively with her master about his instruction to “knock me here, rap me here, knock me well, and knock me soundly.” Later, when Petruchio finally appears for his marriage to Katherine, he arrives (in this production) in a cart pulled by Grumio with a bit in her mouth!

And in Act IV, Scene 3, Grumio participates enthusiastically in her master’s “taming” of Katherine, showing her a fine piece of beef, then mocking her as she pulls it away. The upshot of this gender-blind casting: we infer that an unconventional relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is already in place before Petruchio comes to Padua to find another woman to add to his menage.

Emsworth reviews this show in this post.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Emsworth is glad he didn’t skip The Taming of the Shrew, as originally planned. This show is a joyride, a high-spirited show with as fine a cast as the Stratford Festival can muster. It kept us laughing and entertained from beginning to end.

Evan Biulung and Irene Poole as Petruchio and Katherina; in the background, Adrienne Gould as Bianca

The dilemma in this comedy is how Baptista Minola (Stephen Ouimette) of Padua is to marry off his two daughters. For his pretty, good-humored younger daughter, Bianca (Adrienne Gould), Baptista has solid options in young Gremio (Juan Chioran) and long-in-the-tooth Hortensio (Randy Hughson).

However, for his elder daughter, Katherine (Irene Poole), an irascible, sharp-tongued girl with a limp (in this production, anyway), he has no takers. On principle, like Laban in Biblical times, Baptista will not marry his second daughter until he has found a husband for the first.

Gremio and Hortensio make common cause and agree to find a husband for Katherine so they can get on with their competition for Bianca. The situation is complicated when Lucentio (Jeff Lillico) arrives from Pisa, happens to spy Bianca, and becomes a third suitor.

Biulung and Poole

But a solution appears, and the show moves into overdrive, when Petruchio arrives in town from Verona, hoping to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” He learns from Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine and her dowry and sets out to make her his wife.

As Petruchio, Evan Buliung is a dynamic, irrepressible spirit who sweeps all before him; Irene Poole, as Katherine, is a worthy foil. The more Katherine gives him tit for tat, the more Petruchio values her and the more he revels in the tasty game of subduing her. Their scenes together are first-rate, from the saucy repartee of their opening skirmish to the hilariously cruel scenes in which Petruchio snatches sleep, food, and clothing away from his wife to reduce her to submission. (In this production, Petruchio and Katherine come to enjoy a decidedly kinky, dare we say, sado-masochistic, relationship. For Emsworth’s take on this, see this post.)

Persons considering this show should be aware that it has a good deal of disquieting and gratuitous cruelty. The people of Padua dunk Katherine in the river for her shrewish behavior. Katherine ties up her sister Bianca and whips her. And not only does Katherine strike Petruchio, but Petruchio strikes her back.

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

At any rate, we were entertained by the extravagant, brilliantly colored period costumes and by the Elizabethan songs interpolated throughout the play and performed by various members of the cast. We admired the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, as Bianca, played here as a man-tease, nearly as much as we liked her as Ophelia in this year’s Hamlet. The comic performances of Stephen Oimette as Baptista and Patrick McManus as the flamboyant Biondello were exquisite.

And we especially enjoyed the performance of Ben Carlson as Lucentio’s servant Tranio, who like Mr. Pickwick’s Sam Weller is wittier, more voluble, and more worldly-wise than his master.

So why did we hesitate to see The Taming of the Shrew? It was not that we were necessarily put off by the unenlightened sixteenth-century treatment of women in the play. Those were different times, and Emsworth has no patience for those who cannot get past the fact that sixteenth-century England was not organized on politically correct principles.

No, we hesitated because we thought The Taming of the Shrew, which we had never seen performed until now, was one of our least favorite Shakespeare plays. Reading it, we thought the prologue scene was superfluous, and we could not see how the “lord and master” speech at the end fit with the rest of the play. And seen on the page, the play’s humor was hard to appreciate.

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

We also worried, frankly, about our ability to keep everyone straight. There are plenty of characters, some with similar names (Grumio and Gremio), and to further confuse his audience, Shakespeare has many of them trade identities. Emsworth is happily accustomed to the imposters that litter the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, but there are so many imposters in The Taming of the Shrew that it is not easy to remember who is pretending to be who.

But we worried for nothing. The direction of Peter Hinton gave this production such shape and momentum that we never felt lost or confused, even at moments when we might not have been able to give an accurate account of the characters.

For Emsworth’s take on the nastiness between Petruchio and Katherine, see this post.)

For Emsworth’s review of All’s Well That Ends Well in the 2008 season of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario), see this post for the Emsworth review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post). Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Berstein’s Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).