I had the pleasure of seeing Phyllida Lloyd’s version of Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte Theater while in New York City. The show featured an all-female cast who were full of energy and lit up the stage with this fiery piece. The cast and Lloyd fight at every turn against the simplification of women (or people) who are boxed in by an environment wanting them to conform to heavily gendered qualities.
Taming of the Shrew is a difficult show in many ways. It’s hard to deny the abusive quality of Katherina and Petruchio’s relationship (see his “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” monologue if you need proof). Bianca’s character is reduced to prize to be won by several members of the ensemble. Finally, Katherina’s final monologue seems to articulate you need to submit to the will of your husband because there is no use fighting the system. Lloyd and gang give a big FU to that idea.
The all-female cast is a brilliant solution to some of the difficulties of this play. It showcases right off the bat there is no one type of woman. The body types, personalities, and styles of the women varied considerably. The cast were ‘acting’ as males and females. This immediately forces you to recognise that not a single trait is inherently female or male. As a society we have classified qualities as being feminine or masculine but this Taming of the Shrew makes the argument that no behaviour is gendered.
Arguably, the all-female cast is able to push the boundaries of Shrew because there are no males. The characters can be bolder and more frightening and brasher. They do not have to be fearful of making males look violent or abusive because their argument is that one gender is not inherently violent.
One of the most gendered aspects of the show are the costumes which are definitively male or female. Males are dressed in an assortment of suits and fedoras with short hair. Women are depicted in gowns or baby doll dresses that are either red or bright pink. The men look like they are wearing day-to-day clothing while the females appear more costumed. The ladies look like they are playing dress up in incredibly flamboyant attire. If I had to come up with a term to describe the women’s clothing it would be a hyperactive femininity.
Even when Katherina is forced to change into a shabby t-shirt by her husband, she is not given pants. The t-shirt becomes sexualized. The costuming only reinforces that women are meant to serve a purpose in this world and expected to look a certain way while guys can just look like guys. The only costume which opposes this would be Janet McTeer’s Petruchio was dresses like a washed-up rock and roller. The costume is highly stylized and her rebel attitude is meant to show why he considers himself combatable to woo the shrewish Katherina. McTeer is also just a badass.
The setting for the show is a carnival. A fitting setting for a show where people are trained to perform. Katherina is prevented from eating and sleeping and made to accept impossible facts just because her husband says so. She is trained to behave in a way opposing her nature. Many of the characters are acting or in costume and pretending to be something they are not. One of the strongest images of the show is the opening in which a parade of women wearing red gowns appear to participate in the Padua pageant. They are searching for the ideal woman – or what they believe to be the ideal woman. They want her to be pretty, docile, and, most importantly, obedient.
As mentioned earlier, Katherina’s final monologue about being a wife causes a lot of mixed emotions. Is what she saying inherently misogynistic? Is it really just about sacrificing for the sake of companionship? Is she saying this tongue-and-cheek or does she mean it? This is just a short list of the many questions that this monologue causes when I try to interpret it. It can be read in many different ways.
Cush Jumbo (Katherina) played the entire monologue so seriously that I genuinely became concerned they were embracing her being brainwashed at the end. And then it is the return of the pageant and she is the winner! She gets a fancy crown and a fancy sash and starts waving to the crowd. Yay submissive women! Thankfully the scene changes though as Katherina takes a look at what she has become and in a panic starts screaming and thrashing. She is removing her crown and sash. The men move quickly and stuff her down a trapdoor. You can’t be too careful with free-thinking women.
The show ends with the cast of women storming the stage to dance it out to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” A fitting way to end the show. This show was a lot of fun but at its heart the show is a political statement about gender. It is trying to tell us being a born a particular gender has nothing to do with what type of person we will be. Furthermore, our relationships are not defined by our gender. It is not contractually written out you must be submissive to have a successful relationship if you are a girl. Katherina is confrontational and this production confronts some uncomfortable subjects for people about what gender means. It does not cater to making audiences comfortable but actively shakes things up. So why not end things in a giant dance number to rock out to? This entire show tells us to shake things up and be different and think different.