by Jessica Taurins
The Melbourne Shakespeare Company was only formed in 2016, but their stunningly smooth and entertaining performance of The Taming of the Shrew makes it feel as though they’ve been presenting the works of the great Bard since they were written in the 1500s.
This performance of the Shrew has a difference – each night (or day) the audience gets to choose who plays the Shrew (Katherina/o) and who plays the Tamer (Petruchio/a). In the original text Kate is a woman, of course, and Petruchio a man, although in our performance the tables were turned, casting John Vizcay-Wilson as the feisty Katherino, and Emma Jevons as his tamer Petruchia. There are a number of other characters that were switched as well, most notably Kate’s sister Bianca became her brother (Bianco, Saxon Gray) and Bianca’s husband Lucentio became his wife (Lucentia, Sarah Krndija).
From the original text, a huge number of the cast are switched between the genders. It’s not obvious in every case if that’s a permanent decision or done as part of each performance – the mother Baptista (Amanda McKay) for example, is unlikely to need to change – though it is likely that the other suitors and lovers are switched based on the audience’s choice.
Regardless, the amount of monologues, dialogues, and other-logues that each cast member needed to learn is staggering, and extremely impressive. Vizcay-Wilson and Jevons have not only learned almost the entire script each, but the physical comedy scenes between the two lovers – where each of them are caught in midair, pushed, and occasionally flipped to the ground – are truly amazing to watch, especially knowing that the very next day they may be in the opposite places. This is true of the entire cast, the strength of understanding of their characters shines through in each movement and conversation, and really brings the story to life.
The show’s setting – the St. Kilda Botanical Gardens rose garden – gives a beautiful background to this hilarious show. The rotunda has been transformed (set design by Hayley James) into each house visited during the performance, and the vast expanse of beautiful gardens behind the rotunda are utilised as well for characters entering and exiting their scenes. Instead of rushing around ‘backstage’, each performer remains in character, allowing for a little exciting background motion to complement the performance in front of the audience.
Additionally, Rhiannon Irving’s costume design was outstanding, really taking the audience back to the Shakespearean era. Each performer donned their costume at the start of the show after ‘casting’ by the audience, which could not have been fun under the warm Melbourne sun. Regardless, they all looked wonderful, and each dress and cape shifted beautifully in the breeze and as the characters whirled across the performance space.
Conceptually, the company have made a wonderful decision in allowing the choice between a male or female lead for the show. The Taming of the Shrew, while debatably acceptable at the time, is now a thoroughly misogynistic tale of a man abusing a woman until she becomes subservient to him. Though the story is unchanged, the novelty of having a male character in the position of subservience gives a fantastic modern kick to the Shrew, which was great to see. Alongside this element of modernity, there are a number of contemporary songs performed by Christopher Sly (Paul Morris, a very Shakespearean-looking gentleman with his hair down) that make the show a good deal more accessible – though this is probably one of the easiest Shakespearean tales to follow.
This performance of The Taming of the Shrew is really not to be missed. If you don’t like the show – unlikely! – there’s always the rose garden to look at, and if you don’t like the sun, well, bring a hat and slap on a little sunscreen and get out of your comfort zone. Shrew is one of the best Shakespearean comedies, and the Melbourne Theatre Company’s zany creativity in putting this show on is absolutely worth getting out there for.