The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?


Set Me Free 4 : Killing Our Babies

Of all the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from working with the incredible Kelly Straughan last year, perhaps the meatiest was this: learn to kill your babies. 

I’m obviously not talking about real babies (the fanatic pro-lifers can calm down now). I’m talking about intellectual babies. Brain-children, if you will.  All directors have them, and we all need to kill them. That super-awesome genius-level idea you hatched at 3am and brought into rehearsal and spent hours perfecting might not read once it’s on stage. Or it might not work with the costumes. Or it might be impossible to light. Or it might not fit the actor you imagined it on. Or it might not be in the budget. Or there might not be time to rehearse it. When faced with these or countless other scenarios in which an idea doesn’t work, it’s time to kill that baby.

I realise that framing this in terms of dead babies makes it all seem unfairly insensitive, but the baby analogy works for a reason. Directors love their brain-children. We grow attached to the vision we’ve created of how a particular project “should” look or sound or both. The vision, the idea for how the play is going be, has been cultivated over a long(ish) period of time and is ideally grounded in painstaking research. We’ve considered the semiotics of our approach; we’ve considered our audience demographic; we’ve thrown out other ideas in favour of the One–and yet, sometimes, all that theory still falls flat in practice.

What we all so often forget is that that’s ok. Sometimes, despite all the hard work done to make it fit, we have to kill that baby for the good of the rest of the piece. Killing a baby doesn’t make you a failure or a bad director; in fact, judiciously killing a baby will make your show better than it could ever have been with that dead weight hanging around its neck. It’s actually quite a liberating feeling for the director: all the stress of trying to actualize the vision is suddenly gone, and more focus can be given to the rest of the play.

Kelly’s advice has served me well so far, and I hope that it will continue to be with me as we head into the final week of rehearsals for Set Me Free.



…Just to clarify once again: I do not in any way advocate killing any actual, human babies. I do, however, enjoy eating lamb.

Reflections on an Opening Weekend

Before I totally collapse and commence my much-needed day off, I need a little decompression. What I need more than anything, really, is a bubble bath and a massage and a nap (see my friend Sheelagh’s blog post re: bubble baths for a full listing of all their benefits. Search sheelbeel and you should find her). Unfortunately for me, I have neither a boyfriend nor a lot of cash sitting around, so the massage probably won’t happen. The bubble bath would be in progress at this moment if not for the sad fact that I, alas, have no bubbles. And the nap I might as well put off until bedtime at this point. So I have decided that my decompression will take place in the form of a written reflection on the ups and downs of the opening weekend of Can You Believe? So here’s what I learned during opening weekend:

The thing about a play is…

…it’s rarely (if ever) at its best on opening night.

I’m talking about opening night as the first time a show has an audience. Now, in most professional/semi-professional spheres, shows have preview performances. We sell these to the public as a sort of  “VIP sneak-peek” or “cheap tickets for seeing it early,” but really previews are entirely for the actors’ and technicians’ collective benefit. Previews give us the chance to test out the show in front of an audience before the official Opening Night. Without previews, opening night is Opening Night, which creates some problems. See, a show develops in rehearsal under the watchful eyes of a director and a stage manager and occasionally a guest or two and as it continues to grow, it reaches a point at which it needs an audience in order to reach its fullest potential. The very first audience it meets, however, intimidates the tender, young play. This first audience is confusing because it laughs at things that were never funny in rehearsal and misses all the jokes that were. This audience also strikes terror into the hearts of the artists, thus causing fear of rejection and harsh criticism run rampant on opening night and create butterflies in the tummies of the actors. The butterflies result in generalized nervousness which results in less focused performances. Now, someone has to be the in the first audience, otherwise there would never be a second or third or fourth audience. Hence, the preview. It’s a sort of test drive for the play; changes to just about anything from tech to text can be made based on the responses of a preview audience.

The thing about Fringe is…

…there are no previews.

There are no previews and most companies are working on a pretty tight rehearsal schedule. Sure, there are those shows that have been touring to Fringes worldwide for the past 5 years and are therefore as close to perfect as a show can possibly be because anything that failed the almighty audience test has been changed or thrown out. It’s fun to be that show, but it’s a long road to get there, and even those guys started off just like the rest of us: going in to opening night wishing for at least another week of rehearsal. But alas, try as we might, we won’t get another week of rehearsal, we’ll get an audience. To be fair, an audience can be just as beneficial as a week of rehearsal if its collective reactions are gauged and utilized appropriately. But this leaves the troubling situation of opening night patrons paying an opening night price for what is, truly, a preview performance.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But it’s Fringe! Everyone knows that Fringe is different from other kinds of theatre, and Fringe audiences tend to be more forgiving than normal audiences, especially on opening night!”

You’re right, at least partially. Fringe is a different way of doing theatre–and that’s what a lot of people love about it. But the difference between being slotted as one of the Good, the Bad or the Ugly might very well be the difference between opening and closing night performances in a no-preview situation! Can You Believe?, for example, had a very receptive and responsive and positive opening night audience, which was great. But the best performance so far was tonight’s performance, the third performance. As a result, tonight fell more like a proper Opening Night than our opening night did. Does that make sense?

The thing about actors is…

…they are so great.

I love my actors. I’ve considered myself very lucky throughout the process of working on this show, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work they’ve done and how far they’ve come since our first read-through. That being said…

…the thing about actors is…

…almost all of them have day jobs.

This is actually a good thing. See, the day jobs pays the bills so that the actor can act and do theatre that is appealing and interesting and fun rather than theatre that pays well. In my experience, the two are almost always mutually exclusive! The problem with day jobs and actors, however, is that there’s not a grand database of actors and rehearsals that the bosses log in to when they’re scheduling shifts (although that would be nice!). Thus, when the director (that’s me!) has made the stupid decision to schedule the final rehearsal for five days before opening night and attempts to remedy that error in judgement with a last-minute throw-together rehearsal… it’s almost impossible to schedule because everyone’s work schedules are different. Again, this is not something that’s bad. I would never suggest that someone shouldn’t have/get a job! It’s just a lesson I learned: schedule too much rather than too little. It’s easier for someone to pick up an extra shift than it is for that same person to make an existing shift disappear, especially on short notice.

Also, always back up your tech. And have a plan B for everything.

There are, of course, gazillions of things that I learned this weekend, both about my work and about myself, but those three are the ones sticking out in my mind at the moment. I’m sure there will be a post similar to this one after closing detailing a bunch of other things I learned from the whole Fringe process, but for now…it’s bed time. At last!