‘Taming of the Shrew’ was dynamic.
Lights! Camera! Action! Queensland Theatre’s newest production delivers a Shakespeare classic reimagined. ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a staple in any thespian’s repertoire, however, director Damien Ryan took his production out of Shakespearean times and into a 1920s movie set, where divas run wild and drama unfolds.
‘Taming of the Shrew’ is a comedy classic that follows the story of two sisters who could not be further from one another in temperament. Bianca (Claudia Ware) is the name on everyone’s lips. With suitors to spare, Bianca is not allowed to marry until her troublesome sister, Katharina (Anna McGahan) finds a husband of her own, which is easier said than done. Brother and sister duo, Lucentio (Patrick Jhanur) and Tania (Ellen Bailey) enter the scene, and Lucentio inevitably falls in love with Bianca. Abandoning his original plans to study, Lucentio decides to pursue his new love instead. Film actor, Hortensio (David Soncin), is similarly obsessed with the beautiful Bianca and both men hatch a plan to win both her and her father’s hearts by dressing up as women and tutoring the troublesome Katharina. It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without another level of complexity added to the fray. Navy Captain, Petruchio (Nicholas Brown), is seeking a wife and is ready and willing to marry Katharina after hearing of her significant dowry. What follows is a magnificent tapestry of human connection and a social commentary on what it means to be a shrew.
Lighting design by Jason Glenwright was fully embedded within the time period of the production. Old school follow spots were placed on the set, with stage hands and actors physically moving them to light the action. Rather than lighting being an external factor, it played a crucial role in cementing the narrative within a 1920s film set. Virtually the entire Bille Brown theatre was used in the set design and Glenwright did an exemplary job in focussing audience’s attention within the expansive space. While the set whirled around the actors to create new and interesting shapes, the textured backdrop remained and became a vessel for interesting light design choices. During the second act, as the band of sailors made their trek across the wilderness, the backdrop rippled with an orange wash. Similarly, when Katharina and Petruchio entered the ship, the backdrop gave the illusion of water with the blue ripple effect and a blue wash throughout the rest of the stage. These subtle effects gave stylised context to the action on stage.
Sound design by Tony Brumpton was similarly embedded and effective. The use of surround sound speakers gave dynamism to the production and brought elements that would otherwise exist out of the audience’s sight, into the theatre. One particularly effective moment was the sound of Katharina’s plane soaring over the top of the theatre. The mildly deafening multi-directional sound helped the audience to believe there was truly a plane on top of them as the audio crescendoed and decrescendoed across the theatre space.
Audio/visual elements were also well used to create the world of ‘Taming of the Shrew’. Two screens were set up, which displayed film posters from the production studio. As the actors were filming their silent film, the screens displayed the dialogue that accompanied the action. These extra elements added a new layer of nuance and visual interest. A projector was also used on the backdrop to display videos. In their attempts to woo Baptista (John McNeill), Tania and Gremio showed video pitches, exemplifying their great wealth and suitability for the match. This was a moment of effective comedy and brought Brisbane city into the theatre, in a slightly off-kilter way.
Set design was one of the most dazzling aspects of the production and was wholly utilised by Ryan. As the Bille Brown theatre is constructed in a Fairfax format, with a semicircle of audience seating, set design must be created with all audience members in mind. Almost every set piece was able to be shifted around the stage by both stage hands and the cast themselves, creating defined rooms and levels to maintain visual interest, ensuring every seat had a good view. A raised platform was constructed on stage left, which extended over the audience’s heads. This design choice allowed the audience to become fully embedded within the action on stage and came close to breaking the fourth wall.
The multitude of entries and exits provided dynamic energy in blocking choices and allowed the fairly sizable cast to move throughout the space with ease. This was carried through with the physicality of the actors. At the beginning of Act II, as the cast members were on Petruchio’s ship, everyone on stage moved in time with the motion of the ship. This was accompanied by a soundtrack with a subtle melody and washing water sounds. Every element was considered to create a stylised visual and auditory experience that closely matched the real thing.
‘Taming of the Shrew’ brought old favourites and new faces to the Queensland Theatre stage. Bailey as Tania and Jhanur as Lucentio were a dynamic duo who fostered an engaging and believable relationship. Both actors displayed excellent physical comedy, moving around the stage with adept energy and skill.
Sisters, nemeses and ultimately kindred spirits, Katharina and Bianca were perfectly portrayed by McGahan and Ware, respectively. The physicality and manipulation of voice for both actors brought nuance to their characters who could easily become stuck in their archetypes. McGahan allowed Katharina to breathe, giving the largely aggressive character moments of light and shade, which allowed audiences to see the vulnerability that lay at her core. Ware was poised and carried herself with grace, even as she unleashed her stage combat fencing skills. As the narrative unfolds, however, Ware allowed the shrew within Bianca to come forward, giving new depth to the character as Act II progressed.
Brown was menacing as Petruchio and Bryan Probets brought perfectly timed comedy to Gremio/Grumio. Audiences were taken aback as the venom of Petruchio was fully unleashed and Brown managed this transformation intuitively and with great skill. Probets never disappointed in his perfect physical and vocal comedic timing. Through two largely different characters, Probets defined each with different physical stances and gave each their own energy, resulting in belly laughs from the audience.
Leon Cain as Biondello/Tailor/Player was entirely fantastic. Cain was able to milk the comedy out of every moment to the point that audiences knew something wonderful was in store whenever he stepped on the stage. Soncin as Hortensio was similarly brilliant in his comedic skills, bringing excellent physical comedy to the role.
Rounding out the cast, Wendy Mocke as Rosa/Curtis/Ensemble, Barbara Lowing as Vincentia/Haberdasher, and McNeill as Baptista were all stupendous in their respective roles. Every actor was engaged from the second they walked on stage to the moment they exited, and each played a crucial role in allowing the comedic moments throughout the production to land.
Queensland Theatre will continue to do an exemplary job of bringing classic texts into a modern world. Ryan shed light on issues that not only existed in the 1590s but continue to prevail in 2021. Women continue to be marked as a shrew when they speak their mind and their capabilities are often quashed when they attempt to reach for their full potential. The issues in Shakespeare will continue to be relevant for as long as the human condition exists, because they are not merely cultural themes, they are human themes. So, as the lights go out on the stage every night, an audience will leave slightly changed by the performance they just witnessed. Not only for the talented actors, tight lighting cues and excellent direction, but because every person who puts their creative spirit into the story believes in its message of humanity.
‘Taming of the Shrew’ performs until Saturday, 5 June 2021 at Bille Brown Theatre. For more information visit the Queensland Theatre website.
Photos by Brett Boardman