The Taming of the Shrew

Maidment Theatre - Musgrove Studio, Auckland

10/10/2007 - 20/10/2007

Production Details

By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Patrick Graham

Designer and production manager: Patrick Graham

Stage 2 Productions

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

A group of outcasts kidnap two young actresses and force them to perform in their production of The Taming of the Shrew: a sexist farce or witty dissection of Elizabethan marriage?

Baptista Minola is having trouble marrying off his daughter Katherine. So he decides that his younger more amiable daughter Bianca is not able to marry until Katherine has a husband.  He challenges her wooers to find a man that is capable of taming Katherine.  

The events that follow are at times brutal and often a hilarious romp in which Petruchio tames the strong and wilful Katherine.

Directed by Patrick Graham, who is no stranger to Shakespearean comedy having successfully directed The Comedy of Errors for the 2006 Auckland University Outdoor Summer Shakespeare.   

Michaela Spratt
Stephanie Lee
James Wenley
Tama Boyle
Ben Cragg
Chris Olwage
Paul Letham
Briena Glesco

Theatre ,

2 hrs, incl. interval.

Bedazzling, bemusing and bittersweet

Review by Renee Liang 14th Oct 2007

In this hilariously twisted adaptation by Patrick Graham, a band of motley tramps capture two modern-day girlies gossiping on the edge of what appears to be a Mad Max-esque rubbish tip, and inexplicably force them to perform in their staging of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the lines of which (incidentally) the girls know off by heart.

If you can swallow that opening premise (not so much a suspension of disbelief as a mangling of it), then you’re in for a very wild ride indeed. The versatile cast – shifting between Renaissance Italy and the warped modern day, and often playing several characters each in quick succession – not only perform the full version of Shakespeare’s play, but an enclosing plot where the girls play out the tensions of their friendship and make attempts to escape. These are moments where the “fourth wall’ between the audience and the cast is effectively broken, not only physically (actors jumping onto the laps of audience members) but also through references in the text – on the night I was there, the cast members very clearly knew members of the audience, and used their names in dialogue, to much hysterical reaction.

The physical comedy in this play is its most successful part. There is a routine with chairs reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, and a chase sequence with definite warped allusion to the Keystone Cops (including a set of wheels and a roly-poly nun). And yes, there is the equivalent of a pie fight. It is likely that Charlie Chaplin never had to perform his routines while also doing Shakespeare, so these must have taken a great deal of repetitive and hopefully occupational health-approved practice.

The blatant sexual innuendo does Shakespeare proud. The man (or girl) handling is hilarious – constant pushing, shoving, boob-jiggling and tying up (a length of leather rope must have been the most well-utilised prop in the whole play). From the perspective of my miniscule amount of drama training, this would have taken significant trust between the cast members, and it comes across in performance.

Unfortunately, sometimes the dialogue got lost in all the action. And despite valiant efforts with the Shakespearean dialogue, delivery was not always crystal clear, so the plot took some effort to understand. Keeping track of characters in Shakespeare comedy is difficult at the best of times – Shakespeare seems to have had a predilection for writing characters with similar-sounding names, further confused by his cross-dressing fetish. But when those characters are further played by girls playing men playing horses, then there are grounds for some confusion.

I found the set effective with newspapers, assorted trash, disposable plates and cardboard boxes explored to full potential. The costumes did look suspiciously like something a Drama Department would normally have thrown out, but I’m prepared to stand corrected and accept this as a deliberate stylistic device. Certainly it reflected the grotesque, which is the “bouffon” (focus on the excessively ugly) theatre style that Graham is using. There was what I felt to be a deliberate touch of unashamedly student budget staging. However the lighting and music (from taped modern day sources, as well as a surreal onstage sing-a-long) was professionally done and helped transition between scenes effectively.

Taming of the Shrew is, arguably, one of Shakespeare’s most dated plays in terms of theme. It is pretty obvious in this day and age that a play in which a man ’tames’ his wife by means of deception and deprivation of human rights (such as food, clothing, family and sleep), and then is feted by other men as a hero, is going to raise the hackles of nearly every woman (and the more enlightened of the men). Graham deals with the non-PC script by turning it around on itself, asking us to judge the play itself. Most of the male characters are portrayed as misguided buffoons and the female characters are shown to be long-suffering and, when they can be, coyly manipulative.

Underneath all the laughter is a more serious message (the tying and gagging is more than just a comedic device, though it is very funny). It is hard not to feel the same as the “shrew” Kate (ably played by Michaela Spratt) when she goes on one of her kicking and punching rampages. But luckily, on stage if not in the text, the women get some of their own back. Sort of.

In the end of a marathon and athletic performance (2 ½ hours), I went home slightly bedazzled, bemused and with a bittersweet taste in the mouth. And it wasn’t just from the chocolate cake they gave us afterwards.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Flamboyantly grubby hodge podge

Review by Nik Smythe 12th Oct 2007

The set is rubbish, literally and ingeniously; mainly screwed up newspaper (lots of it) and various sized cardboard boxes.  I have been impressed recently by this poor-theatre trend of using free stuff like boxes to build the set, done to great effect in Rumplestilts, and in the case of The Mall, using nothing at all, not even lights.  The starkness these make-do stage dressings provide serve to highlight the performance skills of the cast.

Michaela Spratt and Stephanie Lee are actresses Michaela and Steph, chatting about what sounds like pretty personal stuff when they are set upon by a freakish troupe of Bouffon performers, who force them to play the two female leads in the immortal bard’s timelessly dated comedy.  Thus the play ensues, the cast clad in eclectic costumes and (un)matching makeup – a flamboyantly grubby hodge podge of playtime dress-ups, perfect for a show performed in a rubbish dump by a chorus of freaks and lunatics.

There are many fun moments throughout the two and a quarter hours but overall the diverse concepts don’t hold together. Bouffon characters are strongly set up, but when they enact the play proper they suddenly become intellectual actors.  Rather than seeing The Shrew performed by a Bouffon cast (an ambitious proposition for starters), we simply see actors switching between Bouffon and their various Shakespearian roles. 

As well as lacking a full commitment to the Bouffon paradigm, much of the script’s sense is suppressed by confused performances.  If I wasn’t already familiar with the play I’d have had trouble following what’s going on, as at least one first-timer told me they did.  This isn’t uncommon with Shakespeare – particularly in these modern days of symbols and soundbytes. 

It is a challenge in itself to draw the meaning from such densely written text, and when compounded with other such extreme theatrical styles as Bouffon, the potential of both elements is compromised. Then with random amusing parodies of Tod Browning’s Freaks and the Black and White Minstrels thrown into the whirlpool, one starts to feel like the production is more concerned with quantity than quality.

Fortunately, strong performances in key roles keep the whole wobbly ship afloat.  Both Spratt and Lee create an existential conundrum as their abducted selves, and also deliver the goods respectively as The Shrew‘s implacably sassy Kate and sweet radiant Bianca, who in turn is well matched by her main suitor Lucentio, a loveable lovestruck cornball as played by James Wenley.  The screwball romantic comedy stylings of Bianca and Lucentio’s dialogue when they first meet is one of the strongest Shakespearian moments.

Tama Boyle’s Petruchio is both cultured and gruff, with a touch of debonair and an ability to convey the sense of the bard’s text better than most.  Ben Cragg maintains a little more of the Bouffon element as his as Hortensio character, as well as possessing a most commanding voice and an engagingly eccentric manner.  Chris Olwage intrigues as the mercurial gimpish servant of Baptista, father of the girls and played with long-suffering patriarchal woe by Paul Letham.

The action is garnished with a scene-shifting soundtrack of classic retro pop-songs about love from the likes of 10cc, Soft Cell, Billy Idol, Olivia Newton John etc.  Altogether the production’s gimmicks supply more entertainment value than the classic script.  For example, Briena Glesco is fantastic as a bouncy giggling limbless Bouffon blob in a nun’s habit, but delivers one of the weakest turns as Lucentio’s servant Tranio.  

The publicity for this production comes right out and asks what has often been debated: The Taming of the Shrew, a sexist farce, or witty dissection of Elizabethan Marriage?  I won’t get into the discussion here, particularly as more than anything else this work appears to be a selection of concepts and pop songs that make director/ designer/ production manager/ etc Patrick Graham giggle.


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