Theatre Critic and Journalist

The taming of the play: Is ripping up a classic a Shrewd move?

The taming of the play: Is ripping up a classic a Shrewd move?

Published in the Guardian Theatre Blog, 25.10.2011

You’d think that the two most important elements of The Taming of the Shrew were obvious, wouldn’t you? You need a shrew, Katherine, and, over the course of the play, she needs to be tamed, which involves Petruchio’s famous attempt “to kill a wife with kindness”.

Not so, according to Robin Norton-Hale’s production, currently at the Southwark Playhouse. Norton-Hale cuts Petruchio’s over-pampering of his new bride. Rather than serving a perfectly fine meal and finding “undeserved fault” with it, he slaps a burnt microwavable lasagne in front of her. Her sleepless nights seem to be the result not of his quibbling interruptions about her comfort, but of her bedding down in a sleeping bag. As I wrote in my review, it’s less a hospitality surplus than a hostage situation.

However, owing to Norton-Hale’s extensive cuts there’s no internal contradiction between what the characters say and do. She’s right to approach the play’s problematic misogyny tactically – Petruchio doesn’t tame Kate, per se; he treats her mean to make her keen – but I can’t help but think that her solution loses sight of the play itself. Sure, it looks like a Shrew and sounds like a Shrew, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a Shrew.

In dismissing the place of the supernatural on the modern stage, the early 20th-century critic James Agate wrote, “What a much better play Macbeth becomes when you mentally eliminate the witches!” A better play, perhaps, but is that play still a Macbeth? Without the witches’ predictions – even if they’re treated psychologically – Macbeth becomes a psychopath with whom we can’t really relate. If you drop the handkerchief, have you still got an Othello? Can you really capture Hamlet without The Mousetrap? (In fact, Hamlet is an interesting case, as the complete version is arguably so full of internal contradictions that it becomes unplayable.)

All this is to ask whether plays have essential qualities? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to cut out the heart of a play? It’s an issue I’ve always found myself thoroughly torn over.

On the one hand, I’m a great believer in the play text as raw material to be chopped, changed and interpreted as a director so chooses. Here, the director’s remix is nothing but a proposition to be judged on its own merits as a possibility. Very quickly, however, we find ourselves hurtling down the slippery slope of relativity, where anything and everything goes. As Stephen Unwin put it earlier this year, “we’ve become so obsessed by the ‘how’ that we neglect the ‘what'”.

Equally, though, to insist on the absolute primacy of the text is to forget that theatre is a present-tense artform. As the world changes, new possibilities, resonances and meanings emerge and by holding certain elements of a play as sacred we shackle directors with restrictive conditions. Besides, anyone can tell you that imposing a rule merely encourages artists to set out to break it.

Ultimately, there can be no right answer here; settling for either side would impose an absolute standard against which theatre should be measured. Instead, each production needs taking on its own merits and that means judging it against both the original text and the world in equal measure. After all, a bad Shrew is not necessarily untrue.

Photograph: Southwark Playhouse

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