It’s one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, a story of a man who needs to “tame” his wife, eventually dragging her through the mud to his country house, where he withholds food and sleep until she learns to be submissive.
For obvious reasons, the comedy The Taming of the Shrew can pose huge challenges to a director in 2019. But when that director has seen the titular character from the inside, as Lois Anderson has, it becomes easier to understand what needs to change.
“We’re just not doing that story,” the artist says resolutely, sitting with the woman who now plays Kate, Jennifer Lines, on makeshift patio chairs outside the Bard on the Beach festival tents in Vanier Park.
Anderson is well-known for her feminist take on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata at last year’s fest—a boisterous, contemporary spin on women rebelling. So artistic director Christopher Gaze made a pointed and provocative choice when he asked her to helm this summer’s season-opening, Wild West–set The Taming of the Shrew. Plus, having played Kate in director Meg Roe’s 2012 version of the same play, Anderson was well-positioned to rethink the role and the production.
There were, after all, certain things Anderson noticed about Kate that she might not have if she hadn’t walked in her shoes on-stage. “She doesn’t have any monologues and everything acts upon her,” Anderson observes. “That was one of the starting points: to create a piece that was about Kate, about her evolution and about her as the hero of the piece.”
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Anderson’s new adaptation is that she has not had to write any new lines. She’s instead cut segments of the play, but more importantly—especially in the much-debated “taming” scene—she’s reassigned a bunch of the male protagonist Petruchio’s lines to Kate. And the power shift has been immediate.
“Then Petruchio is not leading or teaching or training her,” Anderson explains. “And without that, you’ve got two intellectual individuals. Now it feels like a complex relationship we would find today. If Kate takes a passage from Petruchio, then Kate is having the self-discovery, not him. She is now teaching him. And that’s where the power is: in who speaks the line.”
At first, Lines admits she had a few second thoughts when Gaze and Anderson approached her about the role. “I said yes right away, and then I was really feeling uncomfortable,” says Lines, who had taken part in Lysistrata. “I feel responsible to the women coming up in society. So I had some sleepless nights. But we’ve worked together before—I definitely know you’re a feminist and clearly believe in equality,” she says, turning to Anderson, “and after we had a chance to talk about it, I was excited to set Kate free.”
Both artists agree that the Wild West setting, inspired by director Miles Potter’s popular 2007 version, is ideal. Along with its Victorian expectations of women, it also offers the open range and cowboy culture that allow Kate to be the “wildcat” the character Gremio describes her as. In this production, Lines says, “the town is the Petruchio”—the force trying to cage Kate in.
“She doesn’t understand the frivolity of the town. She is more at home with the cowboys on the green range, and it’s about how she finds her freedom there,” explains Lines, who is drawing from her own experience of growing up on a ranch in the West Kootenays. “No one judges her there. So they’re equals. And she finds out who she is in nature.”
Lines says that at the beginning of the play, she tries to tap the feeling of Kate being locked in society’s cage, and all the grief and anger that would entail. “I want to scream at the top of my lungs,” she says of her Kate. “I come from a small town of 500 people. I grew up with a family of three brothers, so I have a lot of connections to this. It was sometimes hard to be myself.”
Playing opposite Andrew McNee as the gunslinger Petruchio has also put his character and Kate’s relationship in a new light, she adds. “Andrew brings light and playfulness to the piece, rather than being controlling,” Lines explains. Think frolicking instead of fighting.
By the end, the journey takes Kate back to her home and her family, where she can name herself, change the label of “shrew” put on her, and stand proud with the person she loves, Anderson explains.
Kate owns the final lines in the play—not something that happens in the original, where characters congratulate Petruchio for getting the upper hand on his wife. “That’s very significant that a woman has the last word in Shakespeare,” says Anderson. “That’s rare for Shakespeare.”
The other change that Anderson has added to the play is moments when Kate can be quiet and alone with her thoughts and the audience, often while music by Marc Desormeaux (the late sound composer for Potter’s 2007 spaghetti western) plays.
“In the original play she’s never alone and never has a private moment,” Anderson says, relating another problem she discovered when she took on the role of Kate. “Think about it: Hamlet has so many private moments with the audience. You get to reveal your inner self.”
Lines, a Shakespeare veteran, says that it’s deeply moving to take the spotlight in that kind of way.
“To find your space on the stage: as a leading lady that’s a new place to be—to take the story is a journey for me,” she says with emotion. “I’m not used to being carefully looked at. That’s Hamlet’s journey. That’s King Lear’s journey.” And now, finally, it’s Kate’s journey too.
Bard on the Beach presents The Taming of the Shrew at the BMO Mainstage until September 21.