The Taming Of The Shrew?
& Timon Of Athens
Both at Botanic Gardens, Glasgow
until July 8
Reviewed by Mark Brown
There are occasions when an outdoor performance at Glasgow’s annual Bard in the Botanics festival makes for the most pleasurable of evenings. One can sit in beautiful surroundings, the sun going down on a fine summer’s day, watching a witty rendering of a Shakespeare play, whilst sipping wine in flagrant disobedience of the ban on drinking alcohol in the city’s open public spaces.
However, there are also times (such as Saturday evening of last weekend) when, regardless of the quality of the theatre, the experience is something to be endured more than enjoyed. Pity the audience which had to brave plummeting temperatures, occasional drizzle and (alas, sitting directly behind me) a pair of Prosecco-swigging twentysomethings who chattered loudly and relentlessly throughout the show until, after many fruitless admonitory stares from fellow theatregoers, yours truly finally snapped and told them to kindly shut up.
None of which provided the ideal platform for director Gordon Barr’s adaptation-cum-amalgam entitled The Taming Of The Shrew? (note the addition of a significant question mark). The opening production of what Bard in the Botanics is calling its “Headstrong Women” season, Barr’s piece collides Shakespeare’s famously misogynistic comedy The Taming Of The Shrew with The Tamer Tamed, Or The Woman’s Prize, by the Bard’s contemporary John Fletcher.
Played against a backdrop of outrageously sexist adverts from the second half of the 20th century, Barr’s adaptation turns the tables on Petruchio, the Veronese nobleman who has come to Padua to “tame” the supposedly “shrewish” Katherina. The director does so, it must be said, with a humour and a lightness of theatrical touch which work in excellent harmony with his feminist political intent.
Stephanie McGregor’s feisty, dungaree-wearing Katherina stands in bold, pleasingly comic contrast to the other female characters, who are attired as if they have just stepped off the set of a Hollywood movie in the 1950s. Her distinctly anti-matrimonial bent, not to say her defiance of the notion that she should assume the position of a doormat, are at odds with a soundtrack that includes Love And Marriage as sung by Frank Sinatra (a man who liked marriage so much he had four wives).
Playing opposite McGregor in Barr’s predominantly young cast is James Boal, a recent graduate from the acting programme of Edinburgh Napier University (and a young man with a theatrically illustrious surname, which he shares with the late, great Brazilian theatremaker, and founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal). His is an hilariously rumbustious, thigh-slapping, blithely chauvinist Petruchio.
Having Boal play the role straight, as a man enjoying his attempts to abuse and starve Katherina into submission, is a smart move. The disparity between his Shakespearean japery and the increasingly wretched (and determined) condition of McGregor’s “shrew” gives this adaptation (a sex war revenger’s comedy if ever there was one) an essential sinister dimension.
McGregor’s comic energy finally gives way to a powerful resolution worthy of Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She and Boal are backed by a generally strong supporting cast (which includes the fine actors Beth Marshall and Finlay McLean) who coped admirably with a malfunctioning door, which constantly swung open stage left last weekend. In the end, however, neither the defective set, the Glaswegian summer nor the reprobate tipplers could spoil what is an interesting and entertaining approach to the Bard’s woman-hating comedy.
Meanwhile, indoors at the Botanics’ splendid Kibble Palace glasshouse, director Jennifer Dick is staging another audacious twist on a play by the man of Stratford. Her production of Timon Of Athens involves, not a text by another author, but some significant cross-gender casting, particularly in the title role. Fresh from receiving the Best Female Performance accolade at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her feminised rendering of Coriolanus in last year’s Bard programme, the ever-excellent Nicole Cooper turns her hand to the soon-to-be-disillusioned Athenian philanthropist Timon.
In truth, this is a less radical gender switch than Coriolanus. Whereas the Roman warrior is tied up with centuries of macho ideology (still today our society recoils from the idea of women taking up frontline combat roles in the military), the notion of a wealthy female benefactor is less foreign to us.
More significantly, perhaps, there is something universally human, rather than merely male, in Timon’s dreadful discovery that those he loved and lavished riches upon were mere fair weather friends. In Dick’s production, the suspicious philosopher Apemantus (whose warnings to Timon fall on deaf ears) is played by fine Canadian actor EmmaClaire Brightlyn; a gender shift which (like Brightlyn’s playing of an Athenian senator) is simultaneously modern and timeless.
The play is relocated in time from Ancient Athens to an unspecified Western society in 1929, just as Wall Street is crashing through the good time delusions of the Roaring Twenties. Cooper’s Timon plunges powerfully from ballroom bon vivant in a flapper dress to desperate down and out, raging against humanity from her cardboard home on a beach.
In addition to memorable playing by Cooper and Brightlyn, a generally strong cast is illuminated by the acting of Kirk Bage (the fiery, morally outraged warrior Alcibiades) and Rebecca Robin (Timon’s anguished steward Flavia). In truth, the production struggles to sustain its two-and-a-half hours and sags from time to time. Ultimately, however, it is another admirable take on a lesser known Shakespeare play by a summer festival which continues to go from strength to strength.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 2, 2017
© Mark Brown