The problem with the Shrew

On Saturday night I went and saw the current Bell Shakespeare production of The Taming of the Shrew. It reminded me what a difficult play it is to like.

Of course, I am not without my own Shrew related dramas. When I was in first year at university, I was working as stage manager and lighting assistant on a production by the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild of Charles Marowitz’s play, The Shrew. Can’t say I thought a great deal of the play. And neither did the reviewers. Which led to the very awkward situation that, one of the two lead females in this four hand play decided, after the final performance on the first week, that she wasn’t going to appear for week two. I mean, it should really have come as no surprise to us, it was a crap play, she was a crap actress who got a really bad review, she had to kiss a rather unattractive man and she had to appear on stage in her underwear. Everyone pleaded with her, including her much more talented older sister who was, oddly enough, playing her older sister in the play. All to no avail. But, the show must go on, and guess which foolish stage manager had, the previous week, grumbled in the face of the poor acting that it would be better if she just took over because at least she could act – and knew all the lines….Ah yes, the ultimate case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for. As our run was Monday to Friday, I had to spend the weekend rehearsing then got up on stage on the Monday night including for scenes in my underwear and others in my mother’s wedding dress. That night, I will never forget, was of course the night that all those who were appearing downstairs in the Little Theatre in the Footlights production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead came to see the play, including, naturally, a boy upon who I had a massive crush at the time. And there was little 19 year old me ON STAGE IN MY UNDERWEAR and KISSING THE UGLY BLOKE.  To top off the day, my grandfather died.

So, as you can imagine, despite how many years in the past this all was, some trauma still attaches even to the idea of anything Shrew related. The Bell Shakespeare production took an interesting approach by casting all women in the roles. But somehow this didn’t cut through the misogyny for was quite well performed and staged, although there was definitely and element of the “I’m acting in Shakespeare” ness about the actors at times, a level of stagey-ness that sometimes mars the Shakespeare. And it must be said that the play has some wonderful lines and clever humour. But I didn’t love it.  To me, the over-the-top cruelty of Petruchio made the harshness of the misogyny within the play even harsher. while there was a comical aspect to his portrayal, he was depicted as a man without many genuine feelings, interested in money, in prizes and getting the better of others. If anything, the play is a demonstration of the operation of torture – I just felt sorry for Kate as she was repeatedly tortured to the point where her personality was broken down. As she says, she’ll say the sun is the moon if it will make the torture stop. Perhaps Jack Bauer (and the CIA) should pay attention to that point. The portrayal of Kate wasn’t strong enough to give you a sense of why she switches from seemingly giving in to stop the torture to where she appears to whole-heartedly embrace the change in the final speech. That final speech – it really is like listening to fingernails on chalkboard for me. I just wanted some sense of irony to creep in. But it really didn’t.

The closest I can come to redeeming the play is by the fact that it shows the male characters to be such unappealing characters who treat women like possessions they can bet on and horse-trade over, it clarifies the hideousness of the patriarchy. But the delivery of Kate’s soliloquy did not seem to underscore this idea at all, unfortunately.

In all, use of an all-female cast didn’t really achieve much for me in changing the nature of the play. It seemed to be more of a gimmick than a clearly thought through approach to addressing or undermining the gender issues within the play. In discussions with others after the play we wondered whether a more radical approach might be to totally reverse the genders – have the female roles played by men and the male roles played by women, as their own gender. While the text could continue to refer to them in their original gender, the role reversal would place the misogyny in sharp relief.

Or perhaps there is no redeeming of the play, no matter what Zeffirelli might think. Give me Ten Things I Hate About You any time.

Final (I promise) thoughts on the Triple J Hottest 100

Having read lots of the debate online and the listened to the comments on Hack on Monday, I thought I might go back to a couple of original thoughts.

I don’t think that the result (ie only 2 female vocal tracks and only 9 tracks by black artists) makes Triple J or its listeners sexist, misogynist or racist. nor are those who didn’t include a woman in their own Top 10 misogynist – hey, I, all without realising, am guilty of that charge. What I think the result actually reveals is systemic sexism – within the music industry itself and more broadly within society. As noted by blogger Orlando:

Whenever words like “greatest”, “most important”, “best”, “most influential” and so on, are used in any context we are taught to think of men (I think this is exactly what happened when JJJ put their history pages together). We just aren’t given models in our formative years of women having places beside men in “history”, just occasionally in that disreputable annex “women in history” or “women in rock”.

It is easy to throw around terms like “misogynist” without undertaking much analysis. It is much harder to tackle this notion of systemic discrimination. The Hottest 100 did what all democratic processes do (and thus reveals the limits of democracy) – it reproduced the prevailing ideas/ideology of those who participated in the voting. Democracy is not progressive as a system; it requires progressive activism to prompt change and usually follows social movements rather than leads them (the Green movement and Green political party is a case in point).

The other interesting little side-alley that this debate has gone down appeared in The Punch yesterday when Chris deal brought a whole new dimension to the debate by introducing class. He argued:

Triple J have confirmed the rumour that the only thing that stands between them and mainstream rock stations like Triple M is the absence of an ad break. Their previous tenants have moved out, and the lease has been signed by the nouveau-bogan elite. They’re got a bit of coin. They’ve discovered ecstasy. They’ve infiltrated the Big Day Out. They adorn their torsos with Australian flags and sing along to the Kings Of Leon like their founding bogan fathers did with Cold Chisel. And Triple J is now the shining star in the night sky with which these un-wise men follow towards their Rock Jesus.

Now this is quite interesting. The article appears to imply a link between misogyny and class – well, class in the sense of bogans. Now I understand that bogan is not necessarily a class based term in the strictly Marxist sense of the word, but it does tend to generally apply to the lesser educated, more traditional working (or non-working) classes. And I do recognise that there has been an infiltration of the alternative music scene and particularly the festivals by those who Sartre-debating types would turn their noses at. And yes, traditionally working class culture is less progressive in respect to its position on women. But, and this is a big but, I think it is a major cop out to try and imply that sexism and misogyny are the province of bogans alone. It is present across all class spectrums as is obvious in any cultural analysis. So we need to be careful about reducing the debate to simple stereotyping.

Also, I must admit that there is some beautiful irony in the idea that Triple J’s progressiveness is being brought down by bogans whose culture was so ruthlessly appropriated by the university elites of the early nineties as grunge took to the stripped back guitar based tradition which had been oft the province of the bogan during the synthesised 1980s, and students everywhere emulated their Westie fellows in flannies, tattered jeans and battered boots. Ah, how the circle turns.