With a novel and ambitious twist, Melbourne Shakespeare Company returns to St Kilda Botanical Gardens this December. Their production, The Taming of the Shrew, promises to challenge both actors and audiences because each night the audience chooses who plays the ‘Shrew’ and who gets to tame them!

An exciting challenge indeed for director, (and artistic director of MSC) Jennifer Sarah Dean, who chalks Shakespeare’s mischievous comedy up as her 8th production with MSC. Dean’s past efforts include, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, A Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night – on choosing this play, Dean felt like it was time to start to address some of the more difficult plays within the repertoire.

“I love a challenge and this play certainly is that,” says Dean referring to some of the topical issues the play presents. “The Taming of the Shrew is packed with humour and there are some fabulous characters in it, but at the same time it contains some very misogynistic ideas that we do not agree with. This is where as a creative you have to look at how you address these issues and what you want to leave your audience with. This is something we have played with a lot in the rehearsal room and has lead to lots of interested further discussion especially in regards to us flipping the gender of some roles. It has also highlighted to us how these issues are still so prevalent in our society today. Just because a conversation if difficult that does not mean you should not have it – you never know what further discussion or incite it could ignite.”

Dean’s relationship with Shakespeare began when she was at drama school. She is quick to credit  a fabulous teacher, Rex Doyle, who became an inspiration and  showed her just how dynamic, fun and exciting Shakespeare could be. It was after playing Rosalind (from As You Like It) under his direction that Dean’s passion for Shakespeare really developed.

Dean’s view is that Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time due to their insightfulness into human nature exploring ideas and themes that are often still just as relevant today as they were when they were written. That combined with beautiful language and high stake situations makes for a wonderful theatrical experience.

As a director conceptualising the pieces and looking at how she can create the world of the play and draw out the themes and ideas to make a compelling story for today’s audience, is also a big drawcard for Dean. “I also love how the heightened stakes within Shakespeare’s plays give you freedom to make bold choices and find a real sense of play,” she says.

So, what should traditionalists expect from Dean’s interpretation?

” Although on the outside our interpretation of the plays seems very contemporary, we include pop music performed by the cast live on stage, we use a lot of cross gender casting and often set the piece in a contemporary period we believe we are still true to the text and also some traditional practise.  Our productions contain no amplified sound and minimal lighting (just enough so the audience can still see after dark) we rely on the strength of the actors performances and the text rather than falling back on extravagant lighting or sound effects. Our productions are also highly interactive with the actors incorporating the audience into the piece throughout just as they would have done centuries ago.

For this version of the production we have really looked at the ‘Play within a Play’ element of the piece. Sly’s theatre company are coming to St Kilda to put on a production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Sly does not allocate the roles until the day of the performance which leads to some argument on who will play the ‘Shrew’ and who will tame them, so we open this up to the audience to let them decide! This means that different actors will play different roles on different nights.”

Melbourne Shakespeare Company was established in 2016 to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death as well as a means to bring high quality, exciting, accessible Shakespeare to Melbourne. Initially the company had only planned on producing one production, however after the incredible success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream they knew they had created something new and exciting that audiences wanted to see and the company has continued to develop and expand from there.  “The Taming of the Shrew will now be our 9th production and our 4th year in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens,” explains Dean. “We are a NFP incorporated association meaning that our board of directors are all volunteers who create this work for the love of doing it and in order to support our goal of bringing exciting, accessible Shakespeare to Melbourne. We are incredibly lucky to be supported by the City of Port Phillip’s local festival fund which allows us to make these shows happen here in St Kilda.”

As Artistic Director, Dean explains that a day in her life  is incredibly varied. She is involved in all aspects of the production from applying for funding, booking venues, sourcing crew and cast, directing, helping with marketing and lots of admin! “Although it is a lot of work, MSC has a wonderful culture full of support, laughter and love so it is a pleasure to get to surround myself with wonderful people everyday,” says Dean

As far as the  challenges of bringing a work to an outside venue, well, I get the feeling Dean loves it all!

“I love being outdoors so the idea of spending most of my summer outdoors in the Rose Garden at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens is pure joy! We rehearse in the gardens too (weather permitting) and this means that we can really embrace the space and develop the world of the play during the rehearsal process.

There are a couple of tricky things about working outdoors. Unlike a traditional theatre we cannot leave our set and props in place as there is a risk of them getting damaged and having to bump in and bump out everyday is always a little bit of a challenge. Luckily we have an incredibly team of actors and crew who are always on hand to help!

The other difficult thing is the weather in Melbourne. We never know what is going to happen, the actors will continue performing in sun, wind or rain (unless if becomes unsafe to do so) but we always tell our audiences to come prepared with sun hats/ sunblock and  waterproof coats as you just never know!

Even with these challenges there is nothing better than getting to perform outdoors from glorious sunsets behind the stage, to chorus’ of birds singing at just the right moment, being outside ads an extra level of excitement, wonder and chance to each and every show.”

As a director, Dean loves working with comedy characters, in particular fools. Luckily for her, Shakespeare has created these in spades and The Taming of the Shrew is no exception with the ambiguous Grumio. “I love the innocence of the fool character and how they can entertain both adults and children alike,” she says. “As a director I get real joy seeing the audiences reaction to productions I have worked on and there is something incredibly rewarding about seeing an audience laugh at a joke you have conceptualised.”

As a Shakespeare aficionado, with training at the Globe Theatre in London,  Dean finds it difficult to commit to a favourite Shakespeare play – it keeps changing – but at the moment, she believes her favourite to be Much Ado About Nothing. “The play has some of my favourite Shakespearean characters, Beatrice and Benedick, some of the funniest characters in Shakespeare, Dogberry and Verges , and also manages to perfect balance humour and drama so is always a pleasure to watch.”

After this, Dean will be directing As You Like It for Melbourne Shakespeare Company, which will open at Central Park in Stonnington in March 2020 but, for now, the focus is this play – the one the company describes as their most exciting project yet.

“Our production of The Taming of the Shrew is full of love, laughs and live music,” says, Dean. “It is an exciting and energetic evening of entertainment that you don’t want to miss! The season only runs from the 7th – 22nd December and some nights are already nearly fully booked so make sure you book early to avoid disappointment.”

Tickets: melbourneshakespeare.com