February 27, 2014
I met Katy Stephens during the rehearsals of First Encounter: The Taming of the Shrew and then went to the first performance in Stratford-upon-Avon. This production, directed by Michael Fentiman who recently gave us Titus Andronicus in the Swan Theatre, has a target audience of 8 to 13 year olds and is designed to provide a positive first encounter with Shakespeare.
It's not an easy choice. The Taming of the Shrew can be dismissed as a misogynistic piece if you are not prepared to ask yourself whether this is likely, knowing Shakespeare's record on women.
But Michael Fentiman's frame for the play challenges our gender pre-conceptions by role-swapping so that all the males are played by females and the women by men. So the young audience is asked to look at characters not coloured by gender roles.
This is a slimmed- down version of the text which tells the story clearly, swiftly and with theatrical fluidity in one hour fifteen minutes.
Katy Stephens in rehearsal
Katy Stephens plays Petruchio and we chatted about the rehearsal process and how the show was received before it went on tour from Stratford-upon-Avon to venues in Canterbury, Bradford, Blackpool, Leicester and Newcastle under Lyme.
What difficulties were anticipated in rehearsal? She tells me that there was much talk of language but they were firmly against changing it. Somehow that seemed patronising and we know children love words, like to experiment with language and relish word games.
She says it's funny how poetic the current 'in' language can be as children reach for the extravagant metaphor or use words to mean the very opposite of their standard meaning. So although there is less of it in this scaled-down production, it is still Shakespeare's language.
The first performance in Stratford-upon-Avon
At the first performance, watching young people watch the production is interesting. So much is communicated in the physicality of the performance accompanying the text: they laugh at Katerina's wonderfully overblown response to Petruchio's 'goodly speech'; they like Bianca's frustration trying to extricate herself from Katerina's form of entrapment and there is plenty of audible reaction to the slapstick of the jaunty servants.
Katy believes that children are open to psychologically complex characters. They can recognize and know from their own behaviour the frustration that brings on violent outbursts, mood swings.
Her interpretation of Petruchio, wise and honest according to a servant, is of a man who wants to help Katerina and defend her from her scheming family. For once she has a champion and ultimately the money he sought in marrying her becomes less important to him than her peace of mind.
The ideas of favourites, rivalry and jealousy are very much encountered by young children and they can recognize the frustration and anger Katerina feels. One child observed that she seemed even angrier when played by a man.
A chance to ask questions and find out more
At the end of the performance the actors mix freely with the children and answer the many, many questions the play stimulates. There arelots of questions that focus on the play in performance: the length of rehearsal, methods of line-learning, set construction, quick costume changes, props, voice techniques and vocal preparation.
They also explore how the play uses music to underscore the text, how to create mood and tension and how to relish a word like 'waspish' on the tongue. A group of nine year olds leaving the theatre tell me it has been 'awesome', 'epic'.
Katy says how very special this first day has been, how important to them all. She reckons that this is among the most satisfying work she has ever done. She reflects on how aware she is of the youngsters as tomorrow's theatre-goers, actors, directors and creative artists. She hopes they will continue the Shakespeare tradition and how important it is that they have a positive first encounter.
This is a venture that challenges our pre-conceptions both of the play and of how much children understand.
Photo: Katy Stephens as Petruchio
by Viv Graver
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