William Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew has seen countless adaptations in theatre, opera, ballet, film, radio and TV, and to wrap up its 2019 program, the Melbourne Shakespeare Company have brought it back to Melbourne in an outdoor setting with a twist. To address the controversy of the play regarding its sexist and misogynist tones, the company have pulled together a predominantly female cast with the character of Bianca change to Bianco and played by a man, who has a list of female suitors after him.
The casting of Katherina is determined by an audience vote before every performance and on opening night, the majority voted for John Vizcay-Wilson to be Katerino with the role of Petruchia performed by Emma Jevons. This shift in power and gender blending allows the humour and the liveliness of the story to come through and it's refreshing to have the women be confident, loud and brash and not be admonished for it.
The cast of 14 display immense energy and enthusiasm and they do a stellar job of supporting each other and making everyone look good on stage, especially when due to the aforementioned role assignments, gender pronouns are sometimes confused. Emma Austin (in her debut with the company) as Biondella is a joy to watch even when she's not the focus of the scene. Her facial expressions and body language consistently convey how she is affected by what's occurring around her. Yash Fernado is also a highlight as Petruchia's loyal but frustrated servant Grumio. It's a blessing that Jevons was assigned Petruchia as she takes to her with gusto, displaying her arrogance and self-righteousness with flair.
Director Jennifer Sarah Dean brings out much physicality from the ensemble, with splendid touches of slapstick thrown in without becoming too over-the-top. The fight scenes, no matter how light-hearted they are, show commitment from the cast and it wouldn't surprise me if there were a few sore bums by the end of its season. When Katerino and Petruchia first meet, Dean intelligently draws out the chemistry between Jevons and Vizcay-Wilson and subsequently heightens the tension in their relationship. By also using the entire Rose Garden within the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, Dean expands the geography of this village thus making us feel like we are in the middle of this wacky little world.
The only time where the momentum drops is in the final scene where the three wives wager a bet as to which husband is the most "tamed". Even though this is part of the original play, it would have been a more upbeat way to conclude with its preceding big musical number - yes, there is singing and dancing.
The costumes by Rhiannon Irving and set by Hayley James deserve a mention, particularly as they are made entirely from recycled materials including dresses created from old plastic bags and a set designed from reassembled used furniture. The design works well with the pavilion in the Rose Garden and it's great to see the structure used as a character rather than as a decoration or object.
The Melbourne Shakespeare Company has done well in acknowledging the problems of this play. By taking action to counter these, their outdoor production of The Taming of the Shrew results in a fun and thoroughly entertaining evening.
Venue: The Rose Garden, St Kilda Botanical Gardens, 11 Herbert Street, St Kilda.
Season: until 22 December | Mon - Sun 7pm, Sat-Sun 2pm
Tickets: Full $30 | Concession/Student $25 | Child $20
Bookings: Melbourne Shakespeare Company
Image Credit: Jack Dixon-Gunn