During rehearsals, Carol Rutter, Professor of Shakespeare And Performance Studies at the University of Warwick, and director Lucy Bailey (pictured below) discussed the ideas and concepts behind the production.
CR: The Taming of the Shrew is a play audiences love: the story of the feisty woman and the madcap suitor, two misfits who somehow come together and begin to see eye-to-eye. And it’s a play that’s had a near-continuous performance history in Stratford, staged practically every year between 1908 and 1944. Since 1960, when Peggy Ashcroft played Kate, there have been thirteen RSC productions. Some critics, though, have given Shrew a kicking: they see it as a misogynist play; a play about breaking the will of a high-spirited woman.
What did you see in Shakespeare’s Shrew that made you want to direct it?
LB: You’ve summed up the extraordinary history of this play and the political baggage that it’s accumulated. What you said about the journey of two misfits finding each other, that’s what draws me to the play: the enjoyment and desire to see two people come together despite all their obstinacy, their pride and hangups. You’re desperate for them to find their way to each other – which is what the play dramatises. So there were two things that made me want to do the play: the first was the understanding of the piece as a love story, a difficult love story but a love story. And the second: I have to confess, I fell in love with the Induction.
CR: The story of Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, that frames Shrew?
LB: Yes. The Induction is such an imaginative idea. In itself it touches on all the themes that are then unpacked in the play-within-the-play. It’s clever, beautiful, seductive and funny – a piece of poetry in itself. And the whole thing of beds and dreams became my hook into the play.
CR: Where do you start as a director on Shakespeare? With the language? Or some event that snags your attention? Was it, here, the Induction?
LB: Yes, that was my access to the visual world of the play. It excited me, this idea of a down-and-out, someone for whom life had hit rock-bottom and he’s rolling into a drunken coma, and in that coma he hears hunting dogs and horns – the world’s spinning! – and then he wakes up in a dream where he can’t understand which reality he’s in. The joke, the painful heist that the Lord plays on Sly: that really touched me.
CR: Your work as a director is characterised by bold design that works to release Shakespeare’s writing so that spectators can ‘see’ the language as something physical. What’s the visual idea shaping this production?
LB: Well, it’s very simple, this one! It came on the first reading. A bed! I understand Shrew very simply as a story of finding your mate. The play works like foreplay. And it stages the battle of the sexes – which ends in bed. I took the bed as a metaphor, a metaphor for life really: we’re born in a bed, we (most of us!) have our first sex in a bed, and we die in our beds. So the bed is a sort of sports arena for the piece. But it’s also a public forum, because paradoxically, most of the intimate scenes in the Shrew take place in public: the intimacy of the bed is denied. So the metaphor of the bed shifts: the bed can be a battleground, sports arena, public square, anything you want. But at the same time, by the end of the play, it is clearly also a marriage bed where Kate and Petruchio at last consummate the difficult, dangerous, sexy foreplay that has been going on through the play.
CR: You’re also a director who’s interested in music, who thinks creatively through music. How are you using music here?
LB: I have a wonderful composer, John Eacott, of Loose Tubes, a band I really love. I wanted something quite playful and sexy, like the soundtrack to The Godfather. I’ve set this Shrew in 1940s Italy. That’s really critical. Because to understand a shrew you have to understand the society she is in. My band is essential to that understanding. They’re onstage most of the time as the townsfolk of Padua – sometimes hanging around a hot piazza; other times instrumental in the rituals of that society. They’re the spectators, the witnesses, of the small-mindedness of this town: part of the claustrophobic atmosphere.
CR: Tell me more about the 1940s setting.
LB: It’s difficult to set Shrew in the present when not to be married isn’t a problem. That’s why I went back a bit. Conveniently, Shakespeare placed the Shrew in Italy – a Catholic country that still has one foot in its medieval past. Even now in rural parts of Italy there’s a sense of a feudal society that we’ve lost in England; it was certainly there in Italy in the late 1940s. A woman who wasn’t married was a real oddity. So to try to open up what Shakespeare was talking about in the Elizabethan period, of women who were independent-minded, who didn’t ‘fit’, who therefore became demonised, I had to find a society where that could still happen.
CR: The heart of the play is the relationship between Kate and Petruchio, yes? Do you see them as the definitive screwball couple – Hepburn and Tracy – or are they headed for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
LB: Do you mean do they have a happy life in the end?!
CR: Yes: are they going to be able to explode the suffocating conventions of a small-minded, small-town Italian culture as you’re setting it up? Are they going to be able to make the world new?
LB: Yes – because it’s really affirmative at the end. They both are outsiders, misfits. Petruchio is a wanderer who can’t settle, who, if he hadn’t have met Kate, would have continued his bonkers life-on-the-road with Grumio – sleeping in ditches, heavy drinking. And Kate: if she hadn’t met Petruchio, I think she would have died: ostracised, institutionalised as ‘mad’, lonely. So the fact that they do crawl their way to each other is such a wonderful thing! To suggest that it’s something that would turn sour, I think, is not in Shakespeare’s vocabulary. And once Petruchio says ‘Come, Kate, we’ll to bed’, I think you have to imagine that they’re going have the best sex ever. Life is going to be turbulent, but compared to the small-minded people around them, in finding each other they’ve found freedom. Of course they’ll always have to bash their heads against provincialism, and each other, but that’s going to be fun!
[Reproduced from the programme for The Taming of the Shrew, 2012, Royal Shakespeare Theatre]