Shakespeare is known for his tragedies. Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet get the biggest movies and taught in all the schools. Perhaps it’s because these plays have such commanding leads, complex enough to be a testament to the actor’s ability to portray them: Is an actor not accomplished if he can portray the conflicted conscience of young Hamlet? Or an actress, if she deftly handles Lady Macbeth’s dwindling sanity, feverishly washing the phantom blood from her hands?
These character-driven plays often get the most attention from audiences and critics alike, but not because Shakespeare was better at writing tragedies. He also wrote some 20 comedies. Usually these plays would focus on the situations rather than the characters, possibly to divorce us from empathising with the characters so we could laugh at their foibles. As a result we don’t empathise with them like we do with the brash, romantic Romeo or the stubborn and kind Desdemona.
With their production of The Taming of The Shrew, the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company showed us what a comedian the bard truly was. The cast revived Shakespeare’s spirit when they read his lines, fully understanding the dialogue and playing with it, revelling in the wit and verve of his insults and wordplay. In between the lines, lots of boisterous backslapping between the boys and loud, arrogant laughter filled the space, casting the modern Guild Theatre at Union House back to the ambiance of London’s Globe and Blackfriars, where the plays were originally performed.
The Taming of the Shrew tells the story of Lucentio who arrives in Padua and falls for Bianca. Her mother Baptista refuses any proposals till the older daughter Katerina is married, so friend Petruchio agrees to marry the shrewish Katerina. Meanwhile Gremio and Hortensio compete for Bianca’s love, while Lucentio swaps identities with his servant Tranio so he can tutor Bianca and get close to her. It’s all hijinks, miscommunications and plans foiled from there, while a pretty serious undercurrent of misogyny and spousal abuse gives the play dramatic weight.
The MUSC has been performing with Melbourne Uni for nearly a decade and it shows with this production. Set designer Gabrielle Lewis created a minimal, intimate setting, central to the audience’s surrounding seats. A kitchen bench acted as centre piece with a vase on top (and later, a knife block) and its cupboards were stocked with alcohol. The actors worked to play with this space, creating their own dynamics. When Lucientio and Tranio—a vivacious Oscar Shaw and comely Jordan Peters—hide off stage as the other players enter, they whisper, audible only to the audience members near them. Jaiden Leeworthy’s lighting design had occasional moments of brilliance when it would spotlight actors as they turned before leaving, or when the kitchen was dropped into darkness after a dramatic moment.
Observing the actors up close in this space was a perk of the design (though it did bother me when I could only see their backs, or another actor blocked my view) because the dedication to the performance was so clear. Emily Burke, who played the titular shrew Katerina, was standing near me at one point toward the end and I could see the anguish spread all over her face due to her torturous marriage to Peruchio. Even when the actors were offside, the arena-style stage meant that they could be observed at any moment.
Lewis McDonald’s Peruchio was a commanding and arrogant portrayal. He puffed out his chest and walked with a swagger wherever he went. Upon first meeting Katerina, he flirts with all the subtlety of a dog in heat: within the space of one scene he kisses her, declares they be married this coming Sunday and is already comfortably calling Baptista “Mother”.
As Katerina, Emily Burke seemed to metamorphose her character for every interaction. With her sister she was irritable and bickering, with her mother she was meek, and with Petruchio, a sobbing heap on the floor. Burke is an incredibly energetic performer, though at times she was exhausting, always screeching her voice at maximum volume and exploding into tantrums.
Lachlan Thomas’s Hortensio was a delight. He had a light, fairy-like presence to his movements, fluttering about the stage as if he had to dance instead of walk. In a crowd-winning scene when Lucientio, posing as Tranio, is wooing Bianca, Hortensio is trying to tune the guitar and provide music, but he can’t play one chord right. Genevieve Cassin’s Baptista is a cold, cruel character but she plays it confidently, seeming years beyond her age in the role.
It was a privilege to see this Shakespearian troupe in action. Under Fiona Spitzkowski’s controlled and intelligent direction there were no cheap tricks, no failed experimentation—just top-notch actors paying tribute to one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. I hope to see many more of their productions, tragic and comedic.