“I hope no one walks out feeling like they understand, like they’ve made their judgement and they’re fine with it. I hope that they come out feeling conflicted and uncomfortable.”
So director Tilly Botsford describes her ambition for the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company’s latest production, The Taming of the Shrew. She is met with enthusiastic nods from her fellow interviewees, Sasha Briggs (assistant director) and Michael Hajiantonis (Petruchio); Anna Swinton (Kate) laughingly chimes in, “conflicted and uncomfortable: that’s how we like our audience.”
International Women’s Day is an odd time to be discussing The Taming of the Shrew, a play infamous for its problematic depiction of a woman ‘tamed’. In many ways, however, the themes it explores make it the play that our post-#MeToo society is yearning for. EUSC’s bold new production attempts a frank retelling of the classic, aiming to keep the comedy as heightened as the drama.
For Botsford, the exploration of power is paramount to the play. “Even though [Kate] has the spirit and the drive, she doesn’t have the platform to be able to rebel.”
Botsford, along with assistant director Sasha Briggs, seeks to balance both a contemporary acting style and desire for complex female characters with what she calls a “pretty stark retelling of the story”. She talks often throughout the interview about the beauty and power of the words themselves and how they should not be lost in a contemporary performance. She feels that unless you’re going to make a drastic change to the piece, like the 2014 RSC version set in a matriarchal society, she doesn’t think the play can, or should, be modernised. Instead, she’s kept it essentially atemporal, with aesthetic allusions to the turn of the twentieth century, a period she feels connects with the themes of gender hierarchy, class and power imbalance.
The connection between power and gender is what makes the relationship between Petruchio (Michael Hajiantonis) and Kate (Anna Swinton) so gripping and yet so hard to watch. Briggs sees it as the process of watching Petruchio slowly wear Kate down. Despite this the team have made a conscious effort not to portray Petruchio as a two-dimensional villain. “I didn’t want to make Petruchio this kind of cartoonish, unrelatable figure that would distance any audience members from him,” says Hajiantonis, after Swinton emphatically stated that she believes Petruchio doesn’t love Kate, suggesting it’s all a game to him.
In my opinion, what makes The Taming of the Shrew so special is the fierce and fiery nature of Kate herself (as anyone who’s seen 10 Things I Hate About You can attest to). However, to discuss a production’s interpretation of Kate, the ending must be addressed. Since I don’t want to publish spoilers (of a 400-year-old play…), I won’t comment further but I can say the production deftly deals with the complexity and difficulty of her journey. As Hajiantonis says, “this might be some people’s first Taming of the Shrew. It’s not Romeo and Juliet where everyone knows the story backwards. I think the ending will genuinely shock people.”
The accessibility of Shakespeare is a hot topic at the moment. Swinton discusses how the inaccessibility of the language in Shakespeare means that it’s important to find a way for you personally to access it. While she references this in relation to an actor bringing themselves to a role it is true of an audience member too. Good Shakespeare can transport its audience to a place within themselves that they did not know they had, but bad Shakespeare gets so lost in its own language that the meaning – and often the fun – is lost.
The fun is definitely not lost in this production’s vision. They all rave about the energy and farcical humour. Botsford refers to The Globe’s 2016 production which inspired her interest in the play, saying “the first three acts […] and the fourth is hysterically funny. Then it got to the final act and I was just in tears, like I don’t know what I feel.” These are the emotional extremes she hopes will flourish in the EUSC’s production.
The Taming of the Shrew is playing at Pleasance Theatre until March 16th.
Image: Gavin Smart