EUSC take on the Shrew

Mar 9 2019 | By More

New look at Shakespeare’s troubling work

Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company is this week taking on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – a meaty but tricky choice given the misogyny which underpins its comedy, but one which the company is tackling head on.

It’s been a while since there has been an Edinburgh production of this most tricky of plays. Tony Cownie’s magnificent take in 2002 for the Lyceum transferred the action to Victorian Edinburgh, with Jimmy Chisholm was Petruchio and Meg Fraser as Katherina.

Anna Swinton as Katherina pic Gavin Smart

The plot twists around cow-eyed lovers Lucentio and Bianca. Her father Baptista insists her big sister Katherina  must marry first but the two are helped when Petruchio marries and attempts to “tame” Katherina.

The difficulty is that underneath the comedy and witty word play, and actually structural to the way they work, the play’s theme of the commodification of women in marriage and its general notions of objectification and possession are, to put it mildly, outdated.

EUSC director Tilly Botsford points out that while the themes are timeless and worth talking about it is difficult to find a direct parallel with contemporary society.

Her solution is first to remove the production from any particular time frame, so that her audience can consider events in a more objective manner.

A fixed set and minimal dressing will help add to the timelessness, while music will help to carve out the moments of tension and conflict with lighting playing its part in setting the tone.

However she believes that without significant adaptation, like that of the RSC’s upcoming production or Jo Clifford’s gender-swap adaptation coming to the Glasgow Tron from March, the play can not be satisfactorily modernised.

comedy and darkness

“In my eyes, the writing and the relationships simply don’t allow for that to be a successful retelling,” she told Æ. “I have, however pushed much more contemporary styles of acting, working to naturalise the language as much as possible.

“In terms of addressing the themes of the play, I really don’t want to shy away from its nastiness,” she says. “It’s been a hard job, and we are yet to see whether we have been successful, but the aim is to draw a balance between the comedy and darkness.”

Michael Hajiantonis as Petruchio pic Gavin Smart

Botsford says that she and her assistant Sasha Briggs have worked to paint Petruchio, who will be played by Michael Hajiantonis, as the villain.

“Directors often play up the flirtation of his relationship with Katherina a little more, which enables it to become a sort of ‘unlikely love story’, her a rebellious seductress and him a loveable rogue,” she says.

“I don’t find much strength in this, and I think any attempts to rationalise Petruchio’s behaviour detract from the injustice of Katherina’s situation. In the ‘If I be waspish best beware my sting’ scene, for example, we’ve worked a lot with power dynamics, making it clear that, although Kate is able to match his energy in terms of repartee and quips, she is very vulnerable.”

And it is that vulnerability that Botsford and Briggs are keen to emphasise, rather than allowing Anna Swinton who plays Katherina to appear as solely fractious and “shrewish”, which makes her behaviour – even in the opening acts – seem irrational.

frustrated but weary

“In the Caroline Byrne adaptation at the Globe, my favourite thing I’ve seen on stage, there is a nice balance drawn between bull-headedness and fear,” says Botsford. “In the final monologue we’ve worked hard to ensure there is real sadness in the delivery – a frustrated but weary statement of obedience, delivered more out of necessity than will.”

Sally MacAlister as Grumio, Lizzie Lewis as Ensemble:Curtis pic Gavin Smart

Responsibility for the whole sorry situation, of course, lies with Baptista, the father who insists his eldest daughter is married first. Botsford says she has tried to bring him a little more to the forefront and is directing a fair amount of both Kate and Bianca’s upset towards him.

“For Bianca more generally, we have tried to give her, for want of a better word, more spunk,” she says. “In a pretty classic Shakespearean way, Bianca traditionally acts as a crutch for the plot and as an indicator of what Kate ‘should be’. I think it’s a lot more fun if she is more knowing, and matches Kate’s anger at various points in the play.”

While being aware of the themes and attempting to give them a context that works with a contemporary audience, Botsford emphasises that this is, at its heart, a comedy.

“Through physicality, disguise and quite lively blocking we’ve worked to push how funny the initial three acts are, even with their moments of darkness.

“In my opinion, the most important aspect of the play is the shift that happens after the third act – when the Bianca/Lucentio plot falls into place, making Kate’s situation inescapable.”

It seems that as the EUSC embarks on its eleventh year, it is ensuring that its productions continue to be as resolutely pertinent to the contemporary political environment as can be.


The Taming of the Shrew
Pleasance Theatre Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance EH8 9TJ.
Tuesday 12 – Saturday 16 March 2019
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

EUSC Website:
Facebook: @EUShakespeare.
Twitter: @EdUniShakeSoc.
Instagram: @eushakespearecompany.


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