It’s a brave enterprise to stage a production of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic play to draw attention to a devastatingly relevant issue in Australian culture: the cycles of family violence and abuse. The dangers are obvious. Make one wrong move artistically, and you risk reinforcing the very thing you’re condemning. MUSC’s production of The Taming of the Shrew walks atop this razor’s edge, and the result is a chilling and powerful examination of antiquated attitudes towards women that still linger today.
But first, full disclosure: I hate this play. I loathe it. Not just for its blatant misogyny, but because it acts as a vehicle to validate misogyny. In director Fiona Spitzkowsky’s note, she suggests the play itself is not the problem, the characters are. I emphatically disagree – for me, the text’s structure (and historical context) creates a permissive space where men are free to embrace and enact narratives of male superiority without questioning that power. The Taming of the Shrew is a celebration of the degradation of women.
My personal prejudice, however, only enhanced my appreciation of Spitzkowsky’s ambitious task. No amount of drawing attention to Shrew’s misogynistic elements will ever make it enjoyable to watch. The audacity of this production is to stare down this fact, and carry on anyway.
The cast is strong across the board. Lewis McDonald fully commits to a brutish Petruchio. You hate him, but unlike Iago he is not deliciously evil – he’s just a rotten man. Amelia Burke’s Katherina is nuanced and impassioned; she earns the audience’s hearts and then breaks them. The love pentagon between Bianca (Bridie Pamment) and her suitors is handled well, and I am grateful that even Oscar Shaw’s goofy Lucentio does not escape scrutiny. Of particular note is Genevieve Cassin as Baptista, traditionally played as the Minola family’s patriarch. The gender swap means that the choice of suitor is no longer based upon the whims of a callous father – it becomes a calculated decision. She is driven by a crushing pragmatism that makes the play’s misogyny worse. (The swap also shifts the uneven gender distribution in characters – in the first half there are six men to three women, and they dominate the space.)
The production was also technically very fine; Jai Leeworthy’s lighting design did well to heighten poignant moments and Gabrielle Lewis’ set was elegant, seating the audience around a kitchen table as helpless spectators to the unfolding tale. Performing in the round was really the production’s most affecting stylistic choice, capitalising on the theatrical convention of silence. Katherina’s abuse is on the audience’s conscience. During Petruchio’s most vile soliloquy, he specifically targets the men in the audience. In the performance I attended McDonald looked straight at me when he asked “he that knows better how to tame a shrew/now let him speak”. We stared each other down, but I didn’t say anything, and regretted it for the rest of the play. This helplessness was an awful feeling, but so effective. It captured the horrendous silence around domestic violence that has been so prevalent until recently.
The limitations of Shakespeare’s text appear quickly. As Petruchio convinces Baptista to give him Katherina’s hand in marriage, Burke paces the stage, sighing and whimpering. As her mother and future husband decide her fate in front of her, it becomes devastatingly clear that she has no say in the matter. She is silent both because she has no power in this situation and because Shakespeare did not allow her to voice her thoughts. I worry that this dynamic inhibits the production from reaching its full political ambitions. Men have all the soliloquies, and Petruchio dominates. We see this story of domestic violence through his subjectivity, which creates the wrong kind of uneasiness. I got a real sense that Burke and Pamment work overtime to create a contrasting female subjectivity and energy with far fewer lines. It is such a pity that in exposing abusive men, the production necessarily had to humour them and let their opinions drown out others.
My main criticism would be that I never knew who this production was really for. Seemingly not for survivors of family violence; it did not give Katherina a voice, for she never escapes Petruchio’s ‘taming’. Similarly, I would wager men who attend will already support its political stance. It was an incredibly moving, harrowing story that the audience must endure, rather than enjoy. Spitzkowsky quips, “this is not the Shrew we deserve, but the one we need right now.” Artistically, I would challenge whether we need such a grotesque representation of hegemonic masculinity’s destructive power, but politically I must agree: unfortunately, this production may indeed be necessary.
Theatre has long been a battleground where extreme conservatism clashes with fervently progressive voices, playing out what’s wrong in our society. MUSC’s Shrew epitomises this clash, presenting a deeply troubling vision of the present through the lens of the past. It’s not a fun night at the theatre, but I highly recommend you go. You’ll find an exemplary production of politically meaningful engagement with Shakespeare.
Melbourne University Shakespeare Company’s The Taming of The Shrew is playing in the Guild Theatre, Union House, from 14-24 October. Tickets are available here.