The Taming of the Shrew is such a problematic play, isn’t it? It feels almost sacrilegious to say that I dislike a Shakespeare play but I really do dislike this one. It’s true that we often have to suspend belief for a Shakespeare play and have to approach it bearing in mind the context in which it was written. But, obviously, the thing about his plays that makes them enduring is how universal they are. In America in 2012 it is difficult to find any universality in the idea that a woman has to be tamed, somewhat like an animal, by her husband. (Sadly, this doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination in some other parts of the world in 2012.)
Aaron Posner is a regular director at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in DC and I have been captivated by many of his creative and inventive productions there. I thought that if anyone could give me a better impression of The Taming of the Shrew, he might. In the run that ended last night at Folger, he set the play in the Old West c. 1880. If you’re a fan of the HBO series Deadwood, he was inspired by that. Serendipitously, I happen to be reading Joan Didion’s book, Where I Was From, which includes a description of her ancestors being amongst those who opened up the frontier and made their way to California, so I had been half-living in that kind of world. The Old West and Shakespeare seemed an odd marriage to me but it did give Posner the opening to make some “gender-bending choices”, as he put it. The parent of the shrewish Kate and her younger sister Bianca (who can’t marry until her sister does) was turned into a hard bargaining mother rather than a father as Shakespeare wrote it. Kate is dressed as a gun slinging cowboy in the opening scenes. In the scene where Kate’s new husband, Petruchio, is humiliating her by making her say that a man is a woman and then recant, the words were given to Kate instead. What helped it most for me, though, was that they played up a kind of sexual attraction that Kate discovers, which made her choice to relinquish her “shrewishness” seem more plausible. I still don’t like the play, but this production may have helped me to think about aspects of it differently.
Maybe I should revisit the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film again, and see what I make of that now.