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From Katherine The Curst to getting bloody for Shakespeare: The Show Must Go Online, an actor’s experience to date

Miguel Perez during rehearsal for Taming of The Shrew – please note the lightbox next to my laptop and the book under it, which essentially sums up my entire COVID-19 experience to date!

Nearly a year ago I had the great privilege of playing “Katharina” in The Taming of The Shrew for the wonderful The Show Must Go Online. The below musings on how I approached Kate and the play itself were written not long after playing her and would have likely remained in the archive as notes of interest to myself only. But I have been asked a few times since how I navigated the role, and now it is being studied at Harvard University in the USA as part of an assignment set by Dr Jeffrey Wilson focused on The Show Must Go Online’s work over 2020 – which has prompted a student to ask the following question:

“Were any actors or actresses hesitant to participate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” particularly given its themes of sexism and domestication?”.

So, in response to this interesting question, here is the post I wrote nearly a year ago that I am happy to take off the shelf and share with those who might be interested in my answer.


FROM THE ARCHIVE:

Too curst is more than curst – what do we do with a problem like Kate?

May 2020

With the advent of a pandemic, the first thing to usually shut down is live performance. This is not because it is targeted in any particular way, but mainly because it is a place where a lot of people congregate – be it in their thousands at a music concert, or the more modest numbers of hundreds at a theatre show and everything else in-between.

It was no different in Shakespeare’s time during the various bubonic plague breakouts that London (and Europe as a whole) experienced during his lifetime – and it is no different now.

What is different is that we have this thing called “the internet”. And while most of us are still in lockdown around the world, an unusual (but welcome) side effect of this situation is that creatives are suddenly more easily able to connect with each other – not just locally, but globally.

Above: me as “Oberon” & “Titania” in Sofa Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream filmed a couple of weeks ago. Viewers of Richard III from The Show Must Go Online will see where the inspiration for my “Sir James Tyrrel” look came from, although my Oberon was American, while Rob (Myles – Show Must Go Online Director) asked me to play Tyrrel in a broad Aussie accent, so there were differences!

What has resulted is an explosion of new theatrical work online. Everything from the inclusive and inventive Sofa Shakespeare in the USA, to the ambitious and risk-taking The Show Must Go Online out of the UK. I have been lucky enough to be involved in both these initiatives since the stay-at-home orders were issued here in Australia and am now in the process of producing my own Shakespeare work – a new stand-alone season of my web series Shakespeare Republic to celebrate it’s fifth year – running under the hashtag #AllTheWebsAStage – http://www.allthewebsastage.com (I knew I got that domain name five years ago for a reason!)

But this blog post is focused on primarily my experience working on The Show Must Go Online on two very different productions. I did promise that I’d further explore the process of playing “Katharina” in The Taming of the Shrew, so let’s start there … (mainly because I’d already written most of this not long after playing her, so why let a preexisting essay go to waste?)

To read about my experience on Richard III, click here. To read more about my discoveries as Kate, keep reading below …

Above: Miguel Perez and I as “Petruchio” and “Kate”. Photo by @robmyles.

“That I’ll try …” taking on Kate

Just on five weeks ago, I had the absolute privilege of playing “Katherina” (or “Katharina” as she has been billed in this production) for TSMGO’s version of The Taming of The Shrew.

It was a role I had always wanted to play and likely would never get the chance to play, so this was heaven sent. As soon as I got the casting email notifying me that I was to play her – I was straight into my homework and prep – and, due to a few requests about how did that all work from those who saw the production (which you still can – the replay of the show is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAMtHmeHzio), here’s some notes on how all that played out:

At first blush, if I had a friend being treated the way Kate was being from the get-go – I would have told her to get out of there and run as fast as she could! A father who clearly found her hard to handle and obviously favoured her younger sister over her, followed by an unasked for suitor who had basically laid a bet that he could win her and “tame” her? And then betrothed her to him for marriage without her saying yes once? Or even proposing to her? Yeah … no.

But, my job as an actor is to justify everything that Shakespeare wrote for her, so I just did what every actor does with every role and put myself in her shoes – and in her time. What made her stay? What was more awful than being married off, essentially without her consent, that she was avoiding? Why doesn’t she just tell her father that there was no way in hell she was going to marry Petruchio? Her father at least makes it clear that she has some choice in the matter and yet she stays silent. Why? And the only answer I could come to was that somehow, from the first moment they met, she recognised in Petruchio a kinship.

So, when Petruchio turns up and doesn’t run away, doesn’t show fear in the face of her outrage, taunts and outbursts of anger, in fact, continues to flatter (tongue firmly in cheek) and even genuinely admire her for it – he becomes incredibly interesting to her. And frustrating. And alluring. Not that she’d let him know that, of course. Essentially, she falls for the bad boy. Her mirror. Her soulmate.

To slap or not to slap, that is the question …

Above: Miguel Perez and I as “Petruchio” and “Kate”.

Much is made by critics of the play about the physical violence from Petruchio towards Kate. But when it comes to it, it is Kate who hits Petruchio. No other physical violence is directed by the text. It depends on the director, of course, but Shakespeare was notorious for his lack of stage directions and yet, in the script he gives the direction “She strikes him” after her line “That I’ll try”. He gives no stage direction that Petruchio gets physically violent before that moment (or even afterwards – that’s always up to a director’s interpretation). In fact, Petruchio appears to be trying everything in his power to be charming (cheeky, bawdy, borderline insulting, with the threat of violence, but still charming). After Kate has slapped him, he may restrain her (although that is not obligated in the text), but he still doesn’t hit her.

PETRUCHIO 
What, with my tongue in your tail?
Nay, come again, good Kate. I am a gentleman—

KATHERINE 
That I’ll try.

She strikes him.

PETRUCHIO
I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again.

KATHERINE
So may you lose your arms.
If you strike me, you are no gentleman,
And if no gentleman, why then no arms.

Katherine and Petruchio exchange, The Taming of The Shrew (Folger Library, Line 230)

She has also, just before, tied up and slapped her sister Bianca (played in this production brilliantly by Kirsten Foster) for no clear reason other than frustration and jealousy. Kate is scary with her temper and really, someone needs to challenge her – not because she’s a woman with attitude, but because she’s an unstable and unpredictable human being. There are reasons she’s like this, of course, but I wouldn’t want to be in lockdown with her, let’s put it that way.

Above: Kirsten Foster as “Bianca” with myself as “Kate”. Photo by @robmyles.

Again, however, none of this could enter my head while playing her. And it was fairly easy to see her point of view. As Kate, nobody appreciated my intelligence, my fierceness, my honesty or my ability to be independent in the world. If anything, they undermined it. So they deserved to be treated with scorn and in my sister’s case, to be outright tortured for being so manipulative and for also being so damn weak as to so willingly play the system as she does (in my eyes as Kate, anyway). As Kate, I saw Bianca as a sell out and a betrayer of the sisterhood and all the men as weaklings who were trapped in the system in their own way. None of them were prepared to challenge the system like I was. Or seriously challenge me. So they did not deserve my kindness or even attention.

Add to this cocktail, the fact that my father is the least supportive of all, which raises all kinds of daddy issues and therefore issues with men, and you have a recipe for Kate as I saw her.

Into this self-destructive maelstrom, enters Petruchio in the midst of his own imminent meltdown. A man who has his own issues with his father, who is also looking for a place to belong, just like Kate, and who also just wants to be loved and respected for who he is, just like Kate.

And following that thought, I began to wonder who was Shakespeare saying was actually the Shrew? Was Katharina the Curst … or the Clever? Was this actually a story about the taming of Petruchio as well?

Above: Miguel Perez and I as “Petruchio” and “Kate”.

Through their need to be seen for themselves and loved for themselves, the moment Petruchio and Kate meet, they are destined to fall crazy in love together – and “crazy” is the word). But it was never going to be an easy ride – because they were from exactly the same mold. Plus, there was that bet he had to win (Henry Higgins anyone?) and she wasn’t about to let anyone “tame” her without her permission.

What happens in the starving, sleep deprivation and the rest of the “taming” of Kate at Petruchio’s hands, is dubious treatment at best, but what people seem to miss is that Petruchio chooses to go through all that with Kate. (This is actually a technique used to tame birds of prey – the “Master” of the bird goes through the same “taming” as the bird itself – which bonds them together as a unit. The amount of bird references in Kate and Petruchio’s dialogue seems to hint that this is what Shakespeare was thinking too).

Petruchio is the one who wakes her when she nods off, who turns away the meat from the table – not just for her, but for him as well. Everything he does to her, he also endures. And Kate never actually breaks. She never bows completely to him. Even during the frenetic scene with the Tailor, the Haberdasher, Grumio and Hortensio, she refuses to fully give in. As evidenced by Petruchio’s line at the end of that scene:

“Look what I speak, or do, or think to do,
You are still crossing it. Sirs, let ’t alone.
I will not go today, and ere I do
It shall be what o’clock I say it is.”

Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew

Now, I’m not saying this is therefore a perfect relationship, it is very far from, and it smacks of a rather unhealthy understanding of what a relationship should be, but at least he is not putting her through anything he isn’t experiencing himself. Which also explains why he becomes more and more out of control as things progress – and interestingly, Kate becomes more and more in control of herself and eventually, of him.

Above: Carys McQueen as “Grumio” with me as “Kate”. Photo by @dombrewer.

The real cruelty happens with Grumio. Rob and I talked about how the way people in power behave, will influence the behaviour of those who follow them and the Grumio/Kate scene is a classic example of that. Grumio seems to relish teasing Kate with offers of food that he then withdraws for paltry reasons, tormenting her unnecessarily (and the wonderful Carys McQueen played that scene with such relish, that it was easy to become outraged at her treatment of me). For a modern equivalent on a much larger scale, do I need to say it? *ahem* Trump and America *ahem*

And I don’t think it’s an accident that Shakespeare writes it this way. This is a study in cruelty in all its forms. This play has been called “Theatre of the Cruel” before by people far more expert on this than I. But I also think it’s a study in societal expectations and what asses we make of ourselves, or worse, what we are prepared to compromise, or even embrace, to gain the approval and meet the expectations of others – often going against who we actually are in the process to achieve it. In the case of wanting the object of our affections, even more so. The Elizabethans thought love was a disease and I don’t know that they were wrong!

In Shakespeare’s time, a compliant wife was seen as the ultimate possession. And a reflection of how much of a “man” her husband was. Elizabethan society applauded this kind of mistreatment of a “shrewish woman” by her husband, and saw the “breaking” of her as his solemn duty. I find it odd, therefore, that Petruchio keeps doing what he does according to what society expects of him, when at the same time he makes statements about not caring what people think about him, his clothes, or even Kate. He frequently states that they should be who they are truthfully and honestly and that should be enough.

Above: Miguel Perez as “Petruchio” and Dominic Brewer as “Hortensio” with myself as “Katharina” in the “sun and the moon” scene.

Petruchio is a man who is not actually being truthful. Is not being himself. Is in reality a slave to society and the expectations of others, even though he appears to be doing everything in his power to not be (the wedding scene, anybody?). He is a victim of conditioning.

Kate, on the other hand, is never anything BUT herself – no matter what. It is a case of actions speaking louder than words. He is not fully his own man until the end, but I believe that Kate remains, defiantly, and then cleverly, her own woman.

Many will argue with me about this, and that’s absolutely ok by me. I have never seen Kate as a victim or as someone who is “broken” by Petruchio, I recognised that as a kid aged 10 when I first saw Kiss Me Kate. My lasting impression from that film was wondering why they were being so mean to each other when they were so clearly in love with each other and meant to be together. As an adult and an actor who was now having to play this role and make sense of their relationship (and has a lot of life experience in less than ideal relationships to draw from), this was the line I chose to consciously (and unconsciously) follow.

As far as how I played her on the night (or the morning, in my case)? All I knew is that Kate wasn’t a victim. And would fight tooth and nail to avoid being one. Things like the use of the apple were steeped in practical human behaviour, but also symbolism (I can’t tell you how delighted I was that the fabulous “groundlings” picked up on that apple motif – was so glad to see that in the live chat replay later!). The apple is the thing in the Garden of Eden that Eve is tempted to eat by the Devil, thereby making her a sinner (thanks patriarchy).

BUT, the apple is also the symbol of knowledge (according to the same book), which Eve gives to Adam and could be seen to set them free of the Garden of Eden to go forth and find their full potential. See the parallel to Kate and Petruchio?

The hairstyles changing? Women wore their hair out to signal that they were single and therefore unattached. Once married, it was put up. My hair went from being fully out, to being partially up, to being fully up, to being taken out again in the final speech – all symbolising the hero’s journey of Kate’s track from self-in-crisis, to temptation to divorce from self, to returning to self again with new knowledge of self.

I could go on about this stuff for hours, but this post is already too long, so if you want to read any more thoughts I had on playing Katharina, you can check out that blog post here – and I hope this gave some more insight into my Kate for those who were kind enough to ask about it.

The ghosts from Richard III

Richard III – all hail the Ensemble!

My experience with Richard III was very different to The Taming of The Shrew. Where Rob had let me have my head as “Katharina”, giving me the room and encouragement to make her my own from start to finish and make all my own choices in how to play her (bless him), he was very clear what he wanted with this show. Due to this being the biggest cast to date, rehearsal time was limited, which is to be expected, as it was already a super short time frame, so I was also not surprised that Rob wanted to make sure the smaller roles were closely directed to ensure they fit with his vision for the whole show.

From wardrobe and wigs, to what accents he wanted, to who the character was and how they would be acting and reacting in each bit, I was given a pretty detailed brief by him over the couple of rehearsals I had in the lead up. It reminded me of being a swing 20 years ago – listen, take notes and then get out of the way and make it happen when needed!

I have to say straight out that playing numerous small roles, which the Ensemble do every week for this series is bloody hard in this format. Harder than playing a lead role, in my experience, and my hat goes off to all the actors who have done these roles each show. The amount of costume changes, character tracks, accents and more that they have to manage – plus building multiple characters’ worlds and back stories, just blows my mind and it’s the hardest I’ve worked in a long time.

In a medium where we are all reading the lines, so removing the burden of a lead player having more text to digest and learn that those in smaller roles, I’d say the ensemble roles are the true stars of this medium. I’d forgotten how hard it was to do multiple roles like this and I am in awe of every actor who successfully pulls this off. It was a huge learning curve for me, and doing this latest show left me somewhat in a daze from all the activity going on “backstage”.

Me as Tyrell with Ashley Byam as Richard III

So, after a second time around, what is my overall feeling about this medium? I have found this to be challenging, humbling, fun and did I mention challenging? What I have loved is being able to work with such an incredible group of actors from all over the planet and whom I am so honoured to have shared the stage with, even if it’s virtual only.

I must give props to Casting Director, Sydney Aldridge for her work on this and the previous few shows. As someone who’s worked in Casting (many moons ago), again, I know that is one hell of a job and I am in awe that she was still able to drop by the Zoom green room after party last night looking fresh and awake! Rob and his brilliant producer, Sarah Peachey are also doing an incredible job and my hat goes off to all of them.

And now, it’s onto my favourite Shakespeare world – Shakespeare Republic. I’m poaching actors from The Show Must Go Online troupe who have thrown their cap in the ring to do our new season #AllTheWebsAStage (I mean, come on, who wouldn’t? It’s like a smorgasbord to choose from just laid out in front of me!), and am deep in rehearsals with the first block of actors from LA and Melbourne, which you can read all about here: http://shakespearerepublic.com/2020/04/24/new-special-season-of-shakespeare-republic-has-launched-allthewebsastage-thelockdownedition/ .

The first block of cast for Shakespeare Republic: #AllTheWebsAStage (The Lockdown Edition). Top Row: Laura Gardner, Frank Collison, Phoebe Anne Taylor, Christopher Kirby. Bottom row: Miguel Perez, Sally McLean, Mark Dickinson

I’m prepping a couple of pieces myself, one of which is from Macbeth and the other from Richard II. I’m in love with Beatrice, as anyone who has seen my work knows – I’ve played two versions of her already through the Republic universe, so I will leave her alone this season. I love Emelia too, and am fascinated by Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, two roles I’ve not yet played, but they can hold over to another time. So. Many. Choices!

But, for now, I shall leave it here. I hope everyone is doing ok in these weird times and know that if you’re having days where you just can’t move – don’t worry, despite evidence to the contrary, I am too. This past week has had a few of them, truth be told. And if you’re brimming with creativity and raring to go – then well done and may I borrow some of that magic juice please?

I’ll leave this image of myself in my ghost makeup from last night, because … Shakespeare.

Take care. Stay safe. And speak anon.

Sal x