Guest Director Josie Rourke talks with CST Director of Education Marilyn Halperin about The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare’s so-called "Christopher Sly frame" is rarely staged in production. But can you briefly describe it and talk about why you decided to adapt it for your production of The Taming of the Shrew?
The Sly frame appears at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s play and then doesn’t reappear. Christopher Sly, the town drunk, passes out. The lord of the manor rides by and thinks it would be really funny to convince the drunkard that, having fallen into a sort of coma, he has forgotten his true identity—as lord of the manor. A company of players (as in Hamlet more famously) turns up, and performs the play of The Taming of the Shrew to Christopher Sly. Shakespeare loved the idea of plays-within-plays. I think the problem is that Christopher Sly says (in most versions) very little after the story of Shrew gets going, and his absence makes you forget about the fact that the play is being performed within a frame. And I was interested in how you sustain that meta-theatrical element of Shakespeare’s Shrew without having Sly on the stage the whole time. It’s also worth adding that Shrew is the most adapted play in the Shakespeare canon, from 10 Things I Hate About You being the most recent, to Kiss me Kate obviously being the most famous.
What are your thoughts about what a newly developed frame can contribute to this story?
When I told people I was going to be directing The Taming of the Shrew, they generally had two responses: ’Why?’ and then (often) ’How?’ Some people got really angry about it. I thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could somehow find a way of capturing and harnessing what that anxiety is, why we are still so concerned about this sixteenth-century play? What if we could dramatize that feeling and that anger? This is what brought me to think about a contemporary frame for the play. Could we work with a playwright to create something that would release an interesting and sophisticated debate about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Shrew? And could that frame make the play more relevant to us now?
Keeping the same convention that Shakespeare uses—that of a company of players putting on a play of The Taming of the Shrew—I began thinking about a contemporary company of players, and working with a dramatist to write a frame in which you hear those actors and the director talking to each other and engaging with the ideas in the play itself. The contemporary frame acts as a kind of counterpoint, allowing us to stage the play within it purely and straightforwardly and, I would hope, as true from the heart as it is written.
Talk about your choice to collaborate on this project with Neil LaBute.
Neil LaBute is one of America’s major living dramatists. His work is celebrated for his ability to take on big themes. He writes about what people do when they are in extreme situations, where the stakes are incredibly high. He writes with great speed of thought; his writing has a kind of classical energy to it, and sits interestingly with Shakespeare in that sense because his plays move very, very quickly and he’s able to communicate in a few lines what most dramatists can establish over a number of pages. He’s also a very funny playwright, and his frame for this play is very witty.
What are you hoping will be the impact of the frame upon your audiences?
What I’m hoping the frame will do is allow us to do the play within its own period but at the same time reminding us of where we are now. As you look at Kate struggling to have her own identity, to be herself, coming to terms with the idea of what it is to be in a marriage, there’s an extraordinary mirror for that in what Neil has written that in some way releases what most fascinated me at first when I came to this play. The conversation between Neil and Shakespeare has actually become something profound and really succinct. I want the audience to see in the frame those themes about possession and our contemporary ideas of marriage. That’s what fascinates me within this play: we’ve got the greatest playwright who ever lived talking about possessiveness within marriage in a way that is funny and intimate and dark, as well. And if what Neil does helps us look at that, then that’s potentially quite exciting.
Through the rehearsal process, how have you seen the frame and the play working with—and informing—one another?
What Neil has done, because it’s what playwrights do, is ask a more interesting question than I did originally: What if we can find a way of thinking about a twenty-first century version of marriage? What if it’s a relationship between two women, and one is seeking a marriage, while the other wants to lead a different kind of life? They also have a long-term, professional relationship as director and actor. The director is in essence trying to tame her partner, trying to get her to stop chasing after every ingénue who comes along. There’s a tension between the two women as they argue over the territory of their relationship, and about how much each may own and control the other.
Shakespeare’s play is very much about money and about women as currency and chattels, and about bills of sale being drawn up for them. Neil has hit on something that’s probably the most interesting aspect of Shakespeare’s play: about how much you can own a person, and how marriage—either formal or informal—is on some level is both an act of owning and an agreement to be owned. How much are we willing to be owned, and how do we fight against that?
Within the context of rehearsing Neil’s frame, it’s become increasingly clear how the simple act of working on this particular play, The Taming of the Shrew, places the relationship of these two women, who are constantly striving to keep the personal and professional apart, into relief. It’s the fact of doing The Taming of the Shrew that throws up all these questions about who they are and what the other one wants.
As you work with Shakespeare’s script, how have you come to understand the relationship between Kate and Petruchio?
For me it’s as dark as it is redemptive, because it’s about two people who go with each other on this incredibly intense, psychological journey—leaving aside for the moment the morality of trying to break another person which is absolutely what he tries to do to this woman who has incredible spirit. I think how he does that is by matching her behavior, matching her intensity, her ferocity, word for word and beat for beat. They slug it out, and I think out of that comes a lot of comedy. And I think that through it comes a kind of exhilaration that’s absolutely needed in production. I think that the relationship between them should be so intense that if you’re judging what’s going on, then the play is going too slowly. You should step back and go, ’Hang on a minute, what just happened there?’ I think there are things we can do with the frame of the play that run shoulder to shoulder with that same pace. If we achieve that in the frame, it will just ramp up that intensity. For me that’s when Shakespeare’s writing in this play is most exciting.
There is, of course, a way to "solve the play" by making them just mad for each other—in other words, that its all fun and games.
That doesn’t solve the play for me. She’s still tormented, tamed, suppressed, exchanged as goods. It doesn’t matter if they’re hot for each other. Yes, I think they probably really fancy each other; but I don’t think it stops what happens being a problem.
Are you hoping to hear the audience’s laughter?
Always! However, I think that just because something is funny doesn’t mean it has to be good, and I mean ’good’ in a moral sense. I think often a lot of the most intense comedy comes from places that are dark, or wrong, or about people saying things they shouldn’t say, and about contact with our nearest and dearest fears. I think there’s a lot of that within Shrew, as well. Although it’s a psychologically interesting kind of play, it doesn’t have, for example, the subtleties of a play like Twelfth Night. It’s a funny play and I think he was writing it in order for his audiences to enjoy it, but it’s not a romp and it’s not a farce.
Josie, as a young, and female, director, can I ask why you chose to direct this play in particular?
To be entirely honest, it wasn’t a play that I’d ever included on my "Shakespeare Wish List." But having worked before with Chicago actors on Twelfth Night, I know there’s something so completely alive and available about Chicagoan actors; they have access to incredible energy and clarity. Shrew is a very immediate play: it’s a play where peoples’ transactions are clear, where what’s on the table is something you have to decide to buy or sell, to yield to or fight against. It was the idea of working with these actors on this play that drew me to say ’yes’ to Barbara.
I think this play has many fascinating things to say about relationships, about control, about marriage, about gender. However, because of when it was written, The Taming of the Shrew is a play in which a series of unacceptably repressive acts are committed against a woman. In putting a contemporary frame around Shakespeare’s play, one of the things I am trying to do is to acknowledge the difficulties that Shrew presents to us in the twenty-first century in a way that is funny, raw and engaging.
Why should we continue to stage a play that proves so problematic to us now?
It’s a difficult play, but difficult isn’t necessarily bad. It’s very interesting when you work a lot with new writing, like I do. We’re always thrilled to get our hands on something interesting that explores a difficult issue or is tricky or says unpalatable things in winning and attention-grabbing ways, and I think that Shrew does that. We can ask those questions. It’s not that the attitudes expressed in the play have to be our attitudes. Sometimes, by being in that conversation, actually we’re challenged in our complacencies, in our received ideas.
You don’t subscribe to the interpretation that Shakespeare was writing a quietly subversive play to challenge his audience’s ideas about women, marriage and family?
The play is the play. At the time Shakespeare wrote this play, shrew-taming narratives already existed; he’s taking a stock plot and creating his own version of it. I don’t think that he was doing a delicately subverted piece of writing about gender politics. Yes, I think there’s beautiful writing within it, but I don’t think that there is anything in it resembling a contemporary conversation regarding gender politics. Rather than try and rebalance it and make it okay with a wink or a nod at the end, what I think you’ve got to do is try and make it even more difficult and have the debate. What are the most difficult questions that this play can pose to us? Where will it touch us in our lives? How will it make us reflect on who we are and the choices we make? How we regard ourselves? Where our own society is at?