The comedy is one of William Shakespeare’s most controversial works. It will be staged in a 10-day outdoor production, with an all-female cast, starting this Friday, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. It marks a return to the city’s Castle Yard for the Globe Theatre, following the company’s triumphant visit with As You Like It last year. The company has upped the ante. The director is the precocious Joe Murphy.
“Who knows what Shakespeare was up to 400 years ago?” he says. “But I think he was investigating what happens to society and relationships, when masculinity is too much in the dominant, which leads to oppression, greed and love only as a form of obedience. Femininity tries to re-adjust the balance, as Katherine does. She must be crushed and brought into line, but, in doing so, Petruchio destroys the one thing he loves about her, which is her independent, fiery spirit, and so there’s a tragedy at the end. It feels like a comment on masculine dominance and the damage it brings.”
It appears incongruous that Shakespeare wrote a comedy about misogyny. All the laughs are at Katherine’s expense. Petruchio compares her to a “wasp”. After he’s completed his “wooing dance,” aided by quick bartering with her father, and an hilarious wedding in which the bridegroom punches the priest, Petruchio carts Katherine off for domestic subjugation, involving starvation and sleep deprivation, until she agrees that the sun is the moon. Murphy says there was nuance in Shakespeare’s thinking, that he had feminist tendencies and wasn’t just playing it for crude, sexist laughs.
“When you read the play first, you go, ‘Oh, Shakespeare’s a misogynist to make a comedy out of a woman who is brutally broken down,’ but you think this is the guy who wrote Lady Macbeth, and Rosalind in As You Like It. He’s written some of the most independent, fierce and intelligent women that we see on stage. Can that guy really have the opinion that all women need to be crushed and never speak their minds?
“You then look at the fact that it’s a play within a play. He’s obviously calling it a fiction from the beginning, that this drunken peasant, who thinks he’s a lord, is watching. It’s really all about: watch, this is a play; it’s roles within roles; everything isn’t as it seems. That’s what the whole preamble seems to be about. It feels like he’s taking on very delicate social issues, because, also, in the late-1500s, the litigious cases of women speaking out exploded. Plainly, this went from a domestic issue to a legal issue. It was the real, hot topic that his society was living in, and rather than tackling it head on, he’s done it quite smartly.”
Although still in his 20s, Murphy scooped a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010. Born in Cabinteely, Dublin, he moved to the UK as a child, but he holidayed in Ireland most years of his youth. The Taming of the Shrew is the first professional Shakespeare that he has directed, as Nabokov, Murphy’s theatre company, majors in new writing.
“Someone called it a spin-less Taming of the Shrew; that it’s without spin,” he says of his production. “It’s an interesting comment, because there’s a weird thing that goes on in the industry where people say, ‘Oh, you’re doing Shakespeare, what are you doing with it?’ Well, I’m doing the play — I’m trying to find out what it’s about, and do it the best I can do it, and represent it truthfully, and let Shakespeare say what he’s trying to say.
“I’m from a new-writing background, mostly. It’s really in my DNA to serve the writer, to try and figure out what the writer is saying, and do that in a truthful, simple, beautiful way. That’s kind of what we’ve done here.
“The language can come out in the characters, because we haven’t tried to paste a massive concept onto the top of it. It’s got a fun aesthetic to it, with costumes throughout the ages, so it’s not locked down into any specific time period. It’s quite sassy. All the actors are musicians, as well, so there’s lots of live music threaded throughout it.”
Murphy didn’t want to set the play in any period. “It would have made it too easy to write the play off: ‘Oh, this is the Elizabethan Age, we’re in a time of oppressive, backwater behaviour’ or ‘Oh, this is set in the 1960s, when women were having trouble asserting their rights’. The issues of the play are universal. It still happens today. We are still not at equality. Women are still paid less. There are parts of the world where they have to wear set clothes or can be killed for disobeying their husbands.
“There was a big move in Shakespeare’s time, when it would have been illegal for women to be on stage, and now all women can be on stage during that play, so there’s a real celebration in how far we’ve come, but it’s also a marking that the universal factors that lead to male oppression of women still exist, they are part of our humanity, and have to be fought against. That’s why the play is still relevant.”
*The Globe Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew will be at the Castle Yard, Kilkenny, 7.30pm, Friday, Aug 9 — Sunday, Aug 18 (with a 2.30pm matinee, Sunday, Aug 18). For more visit: www.kilkennyarts.ie.