“Men close your legs and get more chairs” Gillian English.
Using William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and it’s 1999 appropriative adaption 10 things I hate about you to explore the toxicity of gender roles in art and how they shape us as a society is an obvious one. Gillian English’s heroic and hilarious feminist stand up performance currently playing at the Malthouse is a must-see event for those wishing to explore the ways in which the artists we revere and the art they create shape us as a society and reinforce reductive patterns within our community. English’s classical training at LAMDA in Canada leaves her exceptionally well placed to explore how Shakespeare’s portrayal of women has lasted through time and how pervasive its misogynistic characterisations have been throughout time. Why do we keep going back to texts that are relics of reductive attitudes? One of the joys of this production is the skill with which she brings Shakespeare’s legacy down several very necessary pegs. The artist we have deified was a genius, but he was also a working writer who appropriated other texts, was working within a highly rigid, patriarchal society and was writing within the limitations of his worldview. As English says in her promotion ‘When men insist on telling women’s stories for them, not only do they miss the point of telling a story, but they tell it wrong too’. It’s not hard to resonate, in my experience Shakespeare’s limited portrayal of women has been elevated by the skill of their portrayers and the innovation of the adaptor’s. As English states with exasperated weariness ‘We know better and we need to move on. We need to tell new stories.
The incisive integrity with which English explores her rage was a source of many full- throated laughs of recognition at last night’s performance; I could watch her recap Shakespeare plays, or anything for that matter for hours. Gillian English has a remarkable gift of using her comedy as a means of building connection, she may be holding court for the hour but there was an undeniable comradery in the room almost from the moment she stepped onto the stage. We, the audience were rapt, and our jaws certainly got an intense work-out from our delighted, knowing laughter. Her rapid fire delivery is reminiscent of Rosalind Russell in her prime; her breath control and command of the space can only have been refined by her classical training. I would encourage any budding performer to attend this performance to see a true professional in action. So much comedy rests on complacent cynicism and it’s refreshing to spend time with an individual whose wit and insight not only nourishes the mind but the soul. Our laughter comes at a cost and it is credible how well she guides us through those moments. One of the highlights is a bit where we’re treated to a tutorial in various ways to defend ourselves against the violence of men; one of which is how to rip off a penis. It’s hilarious but heartbreaking as we reckon with how the culture of violence against women makes such defences necessary.
Not only does her critique and analysis of popular culture have the passionate precision of a seasoned debate captain (unsurprisingly she was one throughout high school and university) but she consistently demonstrates how it can be done better. For example, one of the things she hates about taming of the shrew is how it pits women against each other. She counteracts this by sprinkling tributes to various women’s confidence, tenacity and strength throughout her performance. As well as exposing the weakness of the arguments that validate the continued performance of problematic works, namely the violence of the play is palatable if it’s pitted against men. She is careful to attest that she is not advocating anything of the sort. She could have easily gotten a laugh at the mental imagery of an attempted rapist having his penis ripped off by a naval officer, but her resolution is deeper than that, she is taking aim at the culture.
I would like to point out that to my knowledge I was the only male in attendance last night. Though I had as many belly laughs as the rest as I marvelled at the skill and wit of the statuesque orator before me, it was an opportunity for me to reflect on my own complicity and the duty that I have to play my part in changing the culture in which we live. I sincerely hope that this brilliant, generous performer finds a much larger audience to engage with for this beautiful, bawdy performance.