Gender politics and poetry

Taming of the Shrew (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

May 8 – June 5

One of the joys of experiencing a Shakespearean play on stage rather than page is hearing aloud the poetic beauty of the Bard’s language and expressions nuanced with articulations of human truth. It is initially startling, therefore that Queensland Theatre’s, “Taming of the Shrew” starts without words; in its opening scene, we are left long in their absence, with the air eventually filled instead with a ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ character whistle that links to the production’s pre-show gramophone sounds.

It’s a start that suits the story’s reappropriated setting of the silent movie era of circa 1920s. Movie billboards to the sides of the Bille Brown Theatre stage space also set the context in time, and sensibility in relation to the play’s feminist politics, in their highlight of the literally silenced star Bianca Minola. And so things begin with glamorous starlet Bianca (Claudia Ware) filming a Calamity-esque silent film, complete with humour-filled melodrama in interaction with her male co-stars, which we see played out as a jerky, black and white film projection.

Against this Italian silent film set backdrop, Shakespeare tropes are soon apparent too, with cross-dressing, confused identities, physical comedy, clowning and comic battles between the sexes featuring throughout the story of two sisters, one who wants to marry and one who doesn’t. While multiple suitors are queuing to woo Baptista’s (John McNeill) enchanting favoured film star daughter, the modest Bianca, her outspoken older sister, Katharina (Anna McGahan), cannot attract even one. Thus, the movie mogul decrees that Bianca cannot be betrothed until her difficult elder sister is wed. Cue the arrival of assured Navy Captain Petruchio (Nicholas Brown), who is unbothered by the tales of bold Katharina shrewish nature, considering it more challenge than obstacle.

The ensuring clash of wills leads to much metaphor-filled, witty banter, complete with imagery, emotion, drama and dynamic language as aviatrix Katharina asserts her strength and independence, and Petruchio’s speech and actions of masculine confidence and strength are contrasted against the romantic clichés with which Lucentio (Patrick Jhanur) woos Bianca by tricking her father.

This is a complex comedy full of complicated conversations and director Damien Ryan finds a wonderful rhythm in the language of the articulate adversaries’ relationship alongside the violent bitterness of their banter towards alliance, symbolised by a shared physical cue to each other. And with her strong will and feisty personality, this beautiful and intelligent Katharina is presented less of a problem and more a promise of great women to come.

Certainly it is always a challenge to find modern resonance from within a heritage work, let alone a problematic one such as William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. That Queensland Theatre has altered its title to lose its ‘The’ perhaps serves as illustration that the taming of Katharina is not necessarily as fait au complet as might be anticipated. Kate’s tart tongue is presented as a technique for her survival in a society in which she does not confirm, however, it also stresses the polarity between the sisters, for while focus appears to be mostly on Katherina and her shrewish behaviour, this Bianca also shows that she is perfectly capable of asserting her only will, manipulating her suitors to encourage the intrepid and lovesick Lucentio and deceiving her father in her path to marriage.

As the more traditional couple of Bianca and Lucentio Ware and Jhanur are both earnest in portrayals of their idealistic characters. As the formidable Katharina and Petruchio, McGahan and Brown are both perfectly suited to their roles, and the shifting dynamic they create between their characters paces these parts of the production along.

Brown is a commanding stage presence in his Queensland Theatre debut, leaning into the particular challenge offered by the role of Petruchio in the context of a 2021 production. And McGahan brings the required spirit to the titular role of the shrew-ish Katharina and is particularly impressive in her impassioned final act monologue about wifely duty.

They are supported by a large cast, including many of Brisbane’s finest performers. As an ensemble they combine together for many memorable scenes, including on Petruchio’s ship (rather than his house in the country) where, after the couple’s wedding, he attacks his servants and refuses to let Katharina eat as part of his intent to tame her, and during the proceeding game play that sees a scene enacted on repeat as, on the way to Baptista’s house, the party must reset each time Kate denies Petruchio’s testing incorrect claim that the moon shines brightly. In particular, Leon Cain raises the most laughs from the audience with his extreme jester slapstick as brainless fool Biondello, Lucentio’s servant.

Adam Gardnir’s design is one of striking staging and works well with Jason Glenwright’s evocative lighting design, especially in creation of some ethereal moments against the studio backlot scenic sky cloth, akin to something from the romantic ‘You Were Meant for Me’ number in the movie musical “Singing in the Rain”. Not only does this reflect the play’s central metaphor of flight (and thus freedom). but it works well in juxtaposition with the robust timber sections of the stage that later become Peruchio’s ship.

The mobile set pieces help in creating a sense of space akin to a studio soundstage and allow fluid transformations of the space in all of its aspects, including providing different elevations and levels out into and above the audience. It is at-once busy and intimate and all very interesting, especially when it is complemented by video segment inserts that both broaden the scope of the plot and expand its opportunities for accessible visual humour.

All aspects of the production work together towards its feminist voice. In gender changes from the original text, Tania (Ellen Bailey) is a trailblazer in disguise as brother Lucentio, a shrew in the making herself, and Barbara Lowing is imposing as their mother Vincentia. Disguises and costumes of all sorts mask true identities throughout, even in the case of Bianca, who is presented as the epitome of femininity in some fabulous costume pieces. And its exploration of male dominance and control over women, is ultimately quite cleverly delivered, especially through its reconceptualisation as agency, the original text’s misogyny and pivotal final act quote from Katharina that a woman should prepare herself to do anything for her husband, including placing her hands below his foot as a token of duty.

“Taming of the Shrew” is a big play of many ideas, as its almost three hour running time attests. It is also, however, a passionate production that offers modern audiences much to consider in terms of gender politics, along with some glamour, romance, laughter… and a plane.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Sea change complexities

Hydra (A State Theatre Company of South Australia co-production)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

March 9 – April 6

It has been a long time since I have read George Johnston’s 1964 Miles Franklin Award-winning faintly-disguised autobiography “My Brother Jack”, however, through the lens of undergraduate literary-study nostalgia, I still recognise the seminal Australian novel’s place as part of our country’s cannon, despite its challenge to our comfortable assumptions of national character. Still, like many I imagine, I don’t know much about Johnston himself, let alone his private life. Award-winning playwright Sue Smith’s work “Hydra” goes some way to filling this space, although ultimately the new work is about the author’s fellow novelist and Sydney Morning Herald columnist wife Charmian Clift, a modern woman with intellectual ambitions, serving as midwife to her husband’s great Australian novel determinations and while acting as carer to his declining health.

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The World Premiere Queensland Theatre coproduction with the State Theatre Company of South Australia is set on the Aegean island of Hydra, two hours south of Athens by boat. It is here that Johnson’s “My Brother Jack” was created, but it’s the fictionalised treatment of the story behind its creation that has us captivated. It is 1956 when, in search of the ultimate Aegean sea change, Australia’s famously scandalous literary couple, acclaimed war correspondent George Johnston (Bryan Probets) and talented journalist Charmian Clift (Anna McGahan) move to the Greek island to focus their lives fully on their writing, the two of them against the world in their Icaris-ish choice to fly towards the sun.

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Over their ten years in Greek, they have three children (the story is told from the perspective of their poet and novelist son Martin Johnston, played by Nathan O’Keefe) and write books, both collaboratively and individually. Indeed, the decade Johnston and Clift spent in Greece was one of intense creative productivity of nine novels for Johnston and two novels and a memoir for Clift.

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The couple’s self-exile begins as a bold and romantic rejection of expectation and an escape from the tyranny of city life as the duo become figureheads of the bohemian Hydra paradise full of writers, dreamers and free spirits, mocking the ockery and cultural cringe back home. Over the years they joined by a long list of like-minded spirits including Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia Reed, represented in the play as couple Vic (Hugh Parker) and Ursula (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight).

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It is a boisterous time of Turkish delight, honey cakes, ouzo and the duelling typewriters of equally-disciplined writers, until over-time things transition into a Greek tragedy of the couple’s own making as the good times transition to alcoholism and their banter becomes more hostile. And as they struggle with the unfairness of working hard but being poor, their relationship strains towards crises of jealously, illness and infidelity (c/o the flirtatious Jean-Claude, played by Ray Chong Nee, whose heavily-accented words may not always be as clear as his intentions).

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“Hydra” is a moving, emotional relationship drama, realised by the measured performances of its core cast of complex characters. McGahan is captivating in her control as the emotionally-expressive Clift, conveying a layered take on what easily could have been a one-note feminist frenzy. Indeed, there is a beautiful physicality to her reserved energy, especially in the scenes that weave into monologues some of her character’s original writings.

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Proberts is always a nuanced actor and, as such, he is tremendous as the tormented Johnston, giving a mercurial performance of initial charm and later heartbreak. Also particularly on-point is Hugh Parker whose supporting role as Vic is a standout of ‘50s stoicism and classic conservative short-back-and-sides look.

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Attention to detail is evident in all aspects of the production, including the juxtaposition of the more modern costuming of the couple’s adult-aged narrator son to those of characters in the recalled stories being enacted in his description. Notably, costumes are authentic but purposeful in showing not just its era-evocative sense of time but the narrative’s passing of years.

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There is an eloquent restraint to the aesthetic of Vilma Mattila’s design, yet the creation of sense of place is vivid, not just in the Greek Island setting but in its easy transition to an Australian living room after the ex-pats return home. Nigel Levings’ lighting sun kisses the iconic white washed setting and evokes the lyricism of Clift’s monologue share of ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ and alike, making it easy to appreciate its intimate and inspirational words of nature-worship, while Quentin Grant’s soundscape of idyllic ocean imaginings lightens the increasingly tense mood.

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Under Sam Strong’s restrained direction, “Hydra” is an intense slow-burn of relationship drama. More than just this, however, it is a sweeping tale full of big ideas like the cost of pursing dreams, and, as such, it is perfectly suited to the still-new Bille Brown Theatre and Queensland Theatre’s 2019’s Season of Dreamers. Though its setting may be an age away in time and place, its premise remains relatable as the dream of better is as old as humanity.

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Appropriately for a show set in Greece, the work is full of mythical allusions and motifs, making it accessible to all audience members, and it is, accordingly, understandable why its season is selling so well, especially for a new work. While you don’t necessarily need to know the backstory or writing of its subjects, like all good works, “Hydra” will leave you inspired to if not discover or revisit their literature, then at least read more about these greats of the Australian cultural landscape.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby