TO BORROW A LINE from King Lear, “The wheel is come full circle” with Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, which plays at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts later this month.
Like all Shakespeare’s plays, The Shrew was originally performed by an all male cast; women were forbidden by law to perform on stage in England until 1660, 44 years after Shakespeare’s death.
The Globe’s production is a singlegender production, too – but this time, the cast is all female.
Surprisingly, for what is often characterised as a chauvinist, even misogynistic play, this approach has been taken before, as director Joe Murphy explains.
“The Globe did an [all-female] production in about 2003, but with a cast of 16, and just at The Globe. We’ve got eight women going around the world, so it’s very different in energy and style,” he explains.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London is an approximate reconstruction of the original, which was built by Shakespeare’s playing company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and in which the bard himself owned a part share. It’s based on a theatre which stood on the same site from 1599 to 1613. The new theatre opened in 1997, after a project to rebuild it was instigated by Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director.
Like the original “wooden O”, the theatre is open to the elements, but an adjacent indoor space is being fitted out, modelled on another London theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed during the Jacobean era. That will open in January 2014 as the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.
The Globe aims to deliver a theatrical experience comparable to that of the audiences who saw Shakespeare’s plays when they were first performed in London. But many people saw Shakespeare’s The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performing outside the capital, in venues such as the courtyards of inns. The Globe seeks to recreate that experience with its touring productions.
The first performances of The Taming of the Shrew may well have taken the form of a touring production.
“Supposedly, the play was written around 1594, and 1594 and 1595 were plague years, so the theatres were closed. Shakespeare’s plays went on tour often. That was really a part of it – roving around England with a cart, turning up in a village square and putting on a play. We’ve built the whole production around that ethos and that energy,” says Murphy.
The Shrew is ostensibly a morality play arguing that wives should be quietly subservient to their husbands, and recounts the turbulent courtship and early days of the marriage between the “shrew”, Katherina, and her opportunist suitor, Petruchio. It has been argued that even in the 1590s, this message would have been out of tune with the times. After all, Elizabeth I was on the throne. It certainly jars with modern sensibilities.
But Murphy says that he and his all-female cast trust the play. “The greatest argument against misogyny is to show it in the theatre, and have people react against it and discuss it,” he says, adding that none of the cast saw any need to graft an unambiguous feminist message on to the text.
“Sticking to the pure truth of it, and trying to let the play do its thing, is the most exciting version of it. There will be a bit of feminism, because eight women are doing it, but not in terms of a big statement undermining or answering the play. Shakespeare’s words do it all.
We’re trying to use that to take the audience on a journey,” he says.
Apart from the academy’s Lyric Theatre and The Globe itself, the production is playing venues as varied as the Bodleian Library Quadrangle in Oxford and Fort Canning Park in Singapore. Hong Kong based ABA Productions has organised the performances here and in Singapore.
Not all Globe productions use 16th or 17th century-style costumes.
Murphy says he and designer Hannah Clark have made a point of using costume elements from several different eras. “We’ve found that it’s most exciting when you don’t put it within a time period, like the Elizabethan era, when women’s rights were obviously so restricted,” says Murphy.
One of the biggest challenges of the production, according to Murphy, was finding the right cast. “You need eight women who can play men convincingly, who can play musical instruments, who can do multiple roles, who can sing, and tour for six months, bond with and support each other, and give you the verse of Shakespeare.
“There are a lot of boundaries, but we found eight really wonderful women. Leah Whitaker, who plays Petruchio, did a fantastic audition, and Kate Lamb (Katherina) is great – really fiery strong women who bring a lot of nuance to roles which can be played as quite big and brash,” he says.
Is The Taming of the Shrew really misogynistic? Murphy says the audience can make up their own minds about that, but points out that its author created some of the most empowered female characters in literature.
Murphy says he has certainly found directing a play about sexual politics with a cast composed entirely of the opposite gender stimulating.
“When you get into what The Taming of the Shrew is about, it feels like giving women the opportunity to take on and own this play, which has such a history to do with women’s issues and women’s rights, and which is so controversial in some ways,” he says.
The Taming of the Shrew, September 25-29, 7.30pm, September 28 and 29, 2.30pm, Academy for Performing Arts Lyric Theatre, 1Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, HK$395-HK$795 hkticketing.com. Inquiries: 2547 7150