Malachite Theatre’s Epiphany at Holy Trinity Anglican Church

It was a bitterly cold night outside Old Strathcona’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, but so wonderfully warm and cozy in the Christmas tree (and empty wine bottle)-filled Sanctuary in which the Malachites gave us a laugh-filled and tender gift of a remarkably fresh yet faithful treatment of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Years ago at the Citadel (during the second season of the Shoctor Stage) I saw Twelfth Night with Brent Carver playing Feste and the great John Neville turned out in fairly conventional yellow stockings cross-gartered. As fine as those two long-ago performances were, Colin Matty’s remarkable Feste and Brann Munro’s hilariously unexpected, outside-the-box, and, in the end, heart-rendingly sympathetic Malvolio set a new, very high bar for Twelfth Night.

Merran Carr-Wiggin’s Viola is charming to the point of jerking more than a few tears, Byron Martin’s Orsino is romantically melancholy but not at all lacking in strength, and Danielle LaRose’s Olivia glitters from the eyes to the toes as she transforms from melancholy to love-struck to pragmatically and gently happy. Perry Gratton and William Mitchell are everything Sir Andrew and Sir Toby should be, and Monica Maddaford’s prank-pulling Maria is a perfect, earthy, brainy, trickster string-puller . . . .

Oh, come on: they’re all so good and individual and memorable! Andrew Cormier’s Sebastian, Evan Hall in the dual roles of the Sea Captain and Antonio, Samantha Jeffery in her two roles of Fabian and Valentine, and Phillip Hackborn in his of Curio and the rifle-toting Officer.

And the music! Every single cast member is a singer, many take a turn at Holy Trinity’s grand piano, and Feste even pulls out a harp for one scene. The denizens of the courts of Duke Orsino and Olivia clearly throw themselves into this mid-winter holiday period and, indeed, into life itself. What a raucous romp!

Over a fairly short number of years, Holy Trinity has made itself into a vital part of Edmonton’s arts scene. The wonderful building is host to three venues for the annual Fringe Festival, and it hosts constant literary, dance, visual art, and theatre events.*

Holy Trinity is a phenomenon to be treasured and supported by the whole city.

Just before the play started this evening, Holy Trinity’s Rector (and cast member — he plays the Priest), Father Chris Pappas, started the festivities off with a first small wonderful gift: his hope that Shakespeare by the Malachites in mid-winter will become an annual event at Holy Trinity.

The addition of an annual mid-winter celebration of Shakespeare would be tremendous, but, please, don’t wait: — Twelfth Night continues until January 20th, 2018. Twenty bucks a ticket. Endless fun and tenderness. You won’t find a better entertainment value on any winter evening, cold or otherwise!

_______________________

I’m deeply honoured to have been a part of Holy Trinity’s first ArtSpirit festival in 2013.

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Pawâkan Macbeth

Pawâkan Macbeth is not 1870s Rupert’s Land period-dress Shakespeare, not a Red-Face Scottish Play. Rather, Pawâkan Macbeth is a breathtaking, entertaining, and timely (re)conciliation of Cree traditional narrative and an iconic piece of the European narrative tradition.

As I scrambled on a wet and icy Edmonton November evening to get to the Westbury Theatre in time for Opening Night I wasn’t sure what to expect of this co-production of Edmonton’s Theatre Prospero and Yellowknife’s Akpik Theatre. I knew through my own odd grapevine that this thing had been worked on very hard by a dedicated team and that it was intended as a touring production targetting smaller and/or indigenous communities. Beyond that I knew the buzz that was in the #yegtheatre air: Fusion of Cree tradition and cosmology with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in Treaty 6 and 7 territories in the 1870s, and all that implies. 

And a lot is implied!

I rushed to catch up with a gentleman and his young daughter in the crosswalk on 104th Street, hoping to minimize pedestrian delays for motorists on a slippery night. Clearly the father amd daughter were also heading to the Westbury, which I could now see through the lobby windows was very crowded. Clearly the #yegtheatre/Treaty Six buzz had gotten word out that something interesting was happening in the Arts Barns.

I remembered something I’d read somewhere about how the production team had been very careful to consult with Elders about the protocols for presenting ceremony on stage and about how to deal with mention of the Wihtiko, which is at the vital centre of Pawâkan Macbeth. I couldn’t help thinking of the theatrical taboo on uttering the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. And the friendly “break a leg” of Western Theatre. 

“If you tickle us do we not laugh?”

Pawâkan Macbeth is a (wonderfully sucessful) exercise in coherently fusing 1870s Plains Cree and Elizabethan English, but more importantly the play is about the reconciliation of contemporary peoples. That reconciliation will never be achieved through paternalism or patronizing, through the celebration of the “Indigenous” as something “interesting” to some flake of the upper crust of colonial society, through a continuation of Colonialism. 

You want reconciliation of peoples? Then send out the best of those cultures and let them go toe-to-toe and hand-in-hand in a friendly, honest fusion. Not looking for winners or losers. Just let’s see how things go.

The Westbury lobby was packed. I figured I’d make my way to the box office and probably try to buy a ticket for Friday night. “Oh, we’ve got a few donated comps!” the lady said. “I’m happy to pay for one, if I can,” I said. “Oh. Sure. I guess you can pay.”

!!

And I was in!

What a pleasant, friendly evening so far.

I picked out a seat, third row on the right, aisle seat and was about to sit down when the gentleman and his daughter from the crosswalk came right upnto me. “Would you like to sit in this row?” I asked, stepping aside to let them by.

“Actually, could we have these two seats at the end? I have to give a sort of speech at the beginning and then I need to kinda run back to my seat.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mark Henderson, the gentleman in the crosswalk and co-director of Pawâkan Macbeth and Barry Billinsky, the other co-director didn’t so much give a speech so much as a friendly welcome and reminders about cell phones and Treaty Six Territory. I’m glad I listened to the gentleman and his daughter and gave up my seat. This was all a moment of family time, sort of.

And then the drum started. 

Stuff just got serious.

A stylized opening battle-scene that was all Plains total warfare and far more effective than old Polanski’s gory 1971 opening. This material can go toe-to-toe!

So, it’s late now. Let’s get all reviewy.

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân is brilliant as is Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth). In fact, all the cast ranges from very good to brilliant. There were a few technical glitches and a few line stumbles, but the thing was smooth and powerful. 

It was both Cree and Shakespeare.

Go see it.

I stayed for a moment at the reception after the play and then wandered off through Edmonton, to my home on Pappaschase and Treaty Six territory and I thought of the words of Big Bear, and of the Playwright, Reneltta Arluk, echoed by Klhcîkosisân (Malcolm) at the end of her play:

Now, in the time of reconciliation, we need to make good on the unity our ancestors agreed to. It is time to step out of comfort zones. To go beyond the blackbox of theatre. To Listen. Pawâkan Macbeth asked Shakespeare to do just that, listen. If Shakespeare can create space for Indigenouse voice, then I am hopeful we are in better days. Plains Cree leader Big Bear asked us to “Remember your ancestors. They had many hardships too. They prayed for better days.” Those days are now.

If we can kill our own individual Wihtikos.

Together.
Pawâkan Macbeth plays at the Westbury Theatre until November 27.

A Merry Romp with the Freewill Players

I’m a sucker for Shakespeare done in the out-of-doors.  When old Will’s words are performed in the Heritage Amphitheatre beside the lake in the heart of Edmonton’s central River Valley Parks, it’s hard for a company to do wrong by me.  I admit, however, that, even after the Freewill Players‘s salvation (in the face of a last minute catastrophic loss-of-venue) of Willy’s irredeemably misogynistic Taming of the Shrew a few seasons ago, I wondered if Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne and the cast and crew could make the fat-shaming Merry Wives of Windsor palatable to a contemporary audience.  After seeing the riotous yet gentle performance this evening, I’m joyously gobsmacked and now excited to see in a few days the Freewill redemption of the extremely problematic The Merchant of Venice.

The weather was beautiful as the happy audience of all ages, from newborn to a few even older than me strolled across the lawns to the gate.  The Moon was rising, the Sun very slowly setting (we’re closer to the Pole than the Equator, after all). As always there were 50-50 tickets to be purchased (again I didn’t win) and nifty Freewill t-shirts and undershorts with Shakespeare’s face printed on them available to take home for a reasonable price. And local beer (and wine) and lots of snacks and popcorn (for the perennial squirrels, I think). As I sat in one of the eleven hundred or so best seats in the house, I snapped a picture of the set and sent it out over twitter saying that I felt that summer had now truly arrived for me because I was at Freewill.  Perhaps it is a sign of thespian focus and professionalism that one of the cast “favourited” my tweet from the green room during intermission.  Truly, that moment of electronic connection is a hint of the deep connection the Freewill Players and their audience feel with each other. Every member of the cast, from the semi-retired John Wright to the newest members of the company seems like a friend or a buddy.

I can’t help but imagine that something similar must have been the relationship between Shakespeare’s company, the Kings Men, and his audience around the turn of the 17th Century.  London in 1600 had about a fifth the population of Edmonton today.  I suspect Edmonton has at least five times as many theatre companies and theatre-goers as London had in Shakespeare’s day.

But that’s a discussion for another day . . .

I’m not going to give anything away about Freewill’s wonderful production of The Merry Wives of Windsor except to say it is a truly wonderful production, full of joy and laughter and teasing and surprises and a very satisfying reconciliation for all at the end.  The performances are uniformly outstanding, from the smallest bit to Robert Benz’s absolutely brilliant turn as Sir John Falstaff. Everyone shines, the costumes are stunning, the multi-level, angular set is marvelously utilized . . . you get the picture.  And the show was an over-the-top merry romp that left everyone as jolly and carefree as Jesse Gervais’ pharmaceutically enhanced Host of the Garter Inn.

The only shortcoming of the production — and I mean that: the only shortcoming of the production as witnessed by me tonight was technical trouble with the actors’ headset microphones/sound system. I understand this has been an intermittent problem throughout the run so far. I hope, of course, that the problem is rectified soon, but I must compliment the cast: every word carried throughout the amphitheatre, whether the mics were working or not.

Thank you, Freewill Players. You have become a joyous and joy-giving part of the fabric of Edmonton’s civic life.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays, alternating with The Merchant of Venice, until July 16, 2017. If you like being happy, go clap and laugh along with The Merry Wives and their friends, please.

The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round).  Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work.  A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.

This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays.  Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.

And it works.

Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts.  The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.

Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance.  Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.

A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.

As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.

Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.

They are us.

In a Summer of Love.

 

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.

 

“As You Like It” at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival

I keep trying to find bad things to say about the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, but . . .

I went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus.  The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower.  Again the cast uses every bit of the multi-level set and also the aisles and hillsides and the flat spaces to the left and right back stage.  The entire space under the tent has been transformed into the Forest of Arden and the very full house seems completely welcome and at home in this Arcadia.  All positive.

The quasi-Edwardian costumes by Hannah Matiachuk are lovely. I got a golden Enchanted April feeling.

When the music began for Amiens’ (Nicolas Donald Rose) opening song, it struck me as a little Alan Parson’s Project, and I thought, “Finally!  I can criticise!” But the prog-rock vibe disappeared sooner than I’d thought it.  Nice job, Sound Designer Matthew Skopyk!  I later had a similar pause over the whistling tune in the second half, but immediately was caught up in the joyful celebration — on stage and in the audience — that culminated in the glorious curtain call/dance party that closed the show.  This burst of joy perhaps surpassed last year’s rousing rendition of “It’s Now or Never” by Sheldon Elter and the cast at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.

I wondered whether Charles’ (Jesse Gervais) Cockney accent might slide into Dick van Dyke’s mid-Atlantic Burt from Mary Poppins.  Nope.  It held steady and together with Kemble and Phebe’s (Nancy McAlear in a double role) brogue from somewhere in the northern half of the Irish sea, helped to draw the lines between the classes.  This distinction is too often made in productions of Shakespeare by making the lower classes little more than cartoon Disney bumpkins, like the button people after the horse race in Mary Poppins.  Freewill pulled it out of the hat again.

Gervais and Farren Timoteo are hilariously physical, slapstick, and rude as the wrestler Charles and his coach Hugh (a part not in Shakespeare’s text).  And John Ullyat steals his few scenes as a Clouseau-like only slightly repressed gay Frenchman.  Ullyat is somehow at once over-the-top and magically restrained as Le Beau.  It is perhaps a disappointment that Ullyat was not a part of the finale, as far as I could tell.

Mary Hulbert’s Rosalind is tremendous and Belinda Cornish’s Celia is the perfect foil/companion/friendly gadfly.  Ashley Wright made Jaques, a difficult role, into something thought provoking, quietly joyful, as well as the melancholy that is his nature.  And Ryan Parker as Touchstone made something reachable out of a character potentially very alien to a modern audience.

I did find one truly negative criticism of Freewill’s As You Like It, but I had to dig deep.  It is not that Touchstone sometimes drops his cane while juggling it — the recovery is always smooth — or that Cornish and Hulbert had an hilarious Harvey Corman-Tim Conway moment of mutual corpsing — it just felt like it needed to be there.  Such fumbles happen in live theatre — I seem to remember the wonderfully steady Wally McSween saving the plot by fudging a misthrown curling rock with his foot in the Citadel’s production of The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon back in 1980.

No. The problem I have I’ll leave at the door of Director Marianne Copithorne.  In this production, with such nice use of accents, Jaques’ “Thereby hangs a tale” speech is unfortunately delivered with North American Theatrical English pronunciation and virtually all of the dense, ribald, earthy humour is lost.

. . . And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’

In Shakespeare’s day, and in available English dialects today, every “hour” of this passage is an “whore”, each “rot” is a “rut” and the “ripes” are “rapes”.  And thereby hangs at least a piece of a tale.

But Hulbert’s delivery of Rosalind’s “I set him every day to woo me” speech revealed a gender reversed parallel between Rosalind/Orlando and Hamlet/Ophelia I’d never imagined before, Orlando sent to a monastery down the road from Ophelia’s nunnery.  That discovery probably more than makes up for the loss of a little ribald humour.

No matter how desperately I try to find fault, the Freewill Players continue to present joyous, moving, and truly impressive Shakespeare the way it should be performed:  in the open air, with grass, and trees, and squirrels, in the Forest of Arden where fantasy and reality meet.

Freewill’s As You Like It continues in repertory with Coriolanus until July 19, 2015, in the Forest of Arden (the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park).

Go and feel the joy!

“Coriolanus” by the Freewill Players

Take him up.
Help, three o’th’chiefest soldiers. I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum that it speak mournfully;
Trail you steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Assist.

This won’t be a typical review. Mark Morris in the Edmonton Journal has already done a fine and balanced review of Freewill Players’ Coriolanus.

For the past few years, even with Shakespeare’s irredeemable script of Taming of the Shrew, I have been consistently impressed by the Freewill productions when I’ve not been simply blown away. Despite that record, I had low expectations of their Coriolanus. Ralph Feines’ film remains burned into my memory as a tough act to follow. I knew Freewill would need to cut for time and personnel. And Coriolanus is a plot that can be hard to follow, even for those familar with Roman Republican history. Coriolanus, the character, is alternately praised and vilified by his own people, the Romans, and by his enemies, the Volsci. Banished by Rome he joins the Volsci to have revenge on Rome, only to betray Volscian ambition to clutch at an impossible peace.

I expected a game try and limited success from Freewill’s roughly two hour time limit and a little more than dozen actors doing repertory with As You Like It.

You blew me away again, Freewill!

And the standing ovation last night, despite a few fumbled lines, was more than deserved.

A Word About the Setting

For those who don’t know Edmonton and the setting of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, a description:

The centre of Edmonton, a metropolis of over a million people, is a park. Don’t imagine New York’s Central Park. Edmonton’s central park is over twenty times the size of New York’s. Imagine wilderness for kilometres. Imagine deer, moose, or even a bear calmly wandering past Downtown. Imagine walking out of wilderness onto a golf course. Then an Arcadian landscape of ponds, fountains, cropped meadows, more wilderness, bike paths, foot paths, Chinese gardens, food forests, amphitheatres, Fur Trade Era palisaded forts, playgrounds, a small Gnome in his home, swimming pools, baseball fields . . . all with a river running through it, all a short walk from the homes and workplaces of a bustling metropolis.

Now imagine sitting in a comfy chair under a giant white circus tent with no walls. Squirrels dart past your feet. Birds are singing. People are smiling and laughing. You look past the stage and see trees, meadows, ponds and fountains. In the distance the wooded river bank rises to meet the sunset sky. This evening smoke from distant northern forest fires enhances the atmospheric perspective, transforming the view into the distant background vista of a painting by Poussin. A few days ago that bear I mentioned ambled nearby, stirring curiosity rather than worry.

This Arcadian landscape is what you pass through on the way to see Shakespeare. The experience is more akin to approaching a provincial performance of the Kings Men in 1598 than it is to a potentially stuffy night at the Theatre in the 21st Century.

And precisely this feeling of being at a provincial performance is one thing that blew me away about Freewill’s Coriolanus: it felt like a carefully abbreviated staging, a site-specific version, such as many of Shakespeare’s plays went through in the provinces and the Plague Years. There was an authenticity to the cutting, and in one particular case, a brilliant artistry in the drastic shortening of a speech.

The Review-like bits

The Plebs are suitably loud and chaotic, Belinda Cornish’s Volumnia is deliciously Patrician and incestuous, John Ullyat’s Coriolanus is stoic in battle and painfully and creepily devoted to his mother, and Robert Benz is steady as Menenius. The conniving Tribunes played by Farren Timoteo and Ryan Parker are like despicable peas in a pod, as they should be. Performances are across the board good or great. Sound design is brilliant, costumes are comfortably mid-century fascist with a touch of street gang, and the set is a marvellously minimalist two-story arcade that is more than fully utilized by the cast..

And Ullyat absolutely nailed Coriolanus’ banishment speech “There is a world elsewhere!” at the end of Act III where Freewill nicely places the intermission.

What shone for me as much as anything, but in a subtle way, was the cutting of the text. Much of the cutting was from speeches, not of speeches or scenes. Speeches are tightened for time, certainly with a sacrifice of beauty and perhaps of sense at times, but in at least one case, that of the final speech of Aufidius, the final words of the play, the cut gives a profound and startlingly modern twist to the meaning of the play.

Spoiler Alert!

The epigraph above is Aufidius’ last speech as Shakespeare had the play end. With the death of Coriolanus, Aufidius seems to indicate, the war is ended, as though it all was driven by Coriolanus and his narcissistic treason.

Here’s how Freewill ends the play (stage directions as I imagine them):

Auf.
Take him up.
[The Volscian Soldiers don’t move.]
Assist!
[Exeunt Volscian Soldiers]
[Aufidius slumps, aware that treason is now his twice over, as it was for Coriolanus, but Coriolanus has saved both cities, while Aufidius has betrayed them both for nothing]
[Exit]

Coriolanus is playing at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 18, 2015.

Go see it.

image

On Watching Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew” for the First Time in Many Years

I have a dim memory of the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.  It was on television.  I’m sure I was watching with my parents, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor falling in the muddy stream and being left behind by her laughing husband is pretty much all that has stuck with me for forty years or so.

Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet I saw in High School and many times since.  I’ve always thought it a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare’s play with a great deal to recommend it.  On returning to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, however, I found little to recommend.  Yes, Zeffirelli has assembled lush and beautiful costumes and sets of great detail. But those sets have too much of a smell of polystyrene, the beautiful Italian light of Romeo and Juliet is missing, and the pacing despite large cuts and rewritings of Shakespeare’s text, is, frankly, plodding.  Elizabeth Taylor discharges her roll as Katherina professionally, but Richard Burton as Petruchio and the rest of the cast have been set free, or directed, to chew the (polystyrene) scenery with gay abandon.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for a contemporary audience.  When the fundamental theme of the play, the breaking of a strong woman through starvation and sleep deprivation, is combined with the swinger misogyny of the mid-Sixties, the result is unbearable.  Petruchio’s country house here is a grubby man-cave, complete with lecherous douche bro retainers. “And Philip’s dagger was not fully sheathed”, a line not in Shakespeare’s text, is inserted apparently for the sole purpose of making an open codpiece joke, a bit of wit Petruchio and his buds think wonderful.  And then they start the torture of Katherina.

I’m not sure that Zeffirelli had any awareness of the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew.  But there is one very odd detail which suggests he, or a set dresser, did look more carefully.

As Lucentio (Michael York) arrives in the streets of Padua, he passes two criminals enduring public punishment, one in a suspended cage, the other below in stocks.  Large signs are lettered with their crimes: “Drunkard” for the caged man; “Wife Stealer” for the man in stocks. Shrew 1

I’m not sure that “wife stealing,” phrased that way, has ever been a recognized offense in Padua. Almost immediately, Lucentio falls in love-at-first-sight with Bianca (Natasha Pyne), then he witnesses his new love chased through Padua by a gang of young men who eventually corner her and force her veil from her face.  As Zeffirelli portrays it, this is, if you’ll pardon the image, a thinly-veiled gang rape, a gang rape which seems to greatly amuse everyone, including the victim.

Later in the film as the drunken Petruchio hauls away his forced bride Katherina, Bianca’s sister, they pass the same two unfortunate prisoners, signs again prominently displayed. “Drunkard” and “Wife Stealer”.
shrew 2

What to make of this subversive bit of set-dressing associated with two rape scenes?  In no way does it ameliorate the symbolic gang rape of Bianca or the misogynistic celebration of Katherina’s forced marriage and later joy that she has been broken under torture.  The cage is where the drunkard Petruchio belongs, and his wife stealing logically deserves the stocks.  But he is presented by Shakespeare and Zeffirelli, and played by Burton, as the hero, not only for his drunken wife-stealing, but more so for his triumphant success in inflicting the Stockholm Syndrome on Katherina.

I don’t know the intention behind the small gesture of putting those prisoners into the two scenes.  But I certainly don’t feel any better about The Taming of the Shrew, either Shakespeare’s or Zeffirelli’s, because of them.

As I did when considering The Freewill Players’ The Taming of the Shrew,  I again am considering whether it is possible to stage The Taming of the Shrew without a profuse apology for its pervasive misogyny.  In my wondering I have come up with a curious thought:  what would be the effect of a modern dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, but in the modern dress of Kandahar or the Swat Valley of Pakistan.  What would happen if The Taming of the Shrew were staged completely faithfully to the script but with burkhas or niqabs instead of Elizabethan dresses? Zeffirelli’s Bianca enters veiled, and, Petruchio, after all, has more of the Taliban or Boko Haram about him than he does of Sir Walter Raleigh dropping his cloak in the puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon.  Such a staging would remain faithful to the text, but no contemporary Western audience would be able to ignore the misogyny.   Would some say “you’re insulting Islam” or “you’re taking Shakespeare out of context”? Possibly. But the text is unchanged – is Shakespeare insulting Islam?  And modern dress is routine in Shakespeare production today. Why is it any more “out of context” to set The Taming of the Shrew in the Swat Valley than it was for Ralph Fiennes to set his Coriolanus in the former Yugoslav republics?

Doubtless such a production would offend all over the place.  But somehow I think it would be worthwhile for the shaking up it would bring.

In the end, such a production would demand an answer to the question “Can you defend this play?”