Macbeth doth come

Macbeth (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Fringe Brisbane Hub

November 11 – 27

“Blood will have blood,” a haunted Macbeth proclaims in Act III of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, knowing that he will have to suffer for his actions. Blood not only represents guilt for Macbeth and his Lady, but is a constant presence as one of the play’s primary motifs. While there is no visual bloodshed in Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s darkest tragedies, there is no doubting the disturbance of its storyline or resonance of its themes around loyalty, fate and other such weighty subjects. The production is still full of the violence that is such a big part of “Macbeth” and Shakespeare in general; even just allusion to the repercussions of regicide, the murders of men, women and children, suicide and wartime battle serves as a reminder that its every violent act leads inevitably to the next.  And the company’s focus, instead, on the linguistic richness of the text, only adds to the intrigue and tension of the storytelling.

There may be no blood, or air-drawn dagger of the mind, but there is the ghost of Macbeth’s brave and noble best friend to plague the Thane’s guilt-ridden thoughts, and also the otherly witches to remind audiences of the darkness of the supernatural tones so integral to its Jacobean context. From their first appearance in the savage play’s opening scene where they grow out of a storm in plan to meet the triumphant warrior Macbeth after battle, the weird sisters (Crystal Arons, Leah Mustard and Ellen Hardisty, who projects a particular eeriness in her chanting tones) beguile us they speak and move in complement, soon telling in the song-like rhythm of rhyming couplets, of their hail of Macbeth (QSE’s Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini) as predicted Thane of Glamis, Cawdor and Scottish King hereafter.

The magic, murder and mayhem continues from this mysterious scene and despite some sudden lighting cues, shadows are used well to emphasise, as much as establish, mood, such as in Lady Macbeth’s (Rebecca Murphy) Act One soliloquies, when, in response to hearing in letter of Macbeth’s promotion to the Thaneship of Cawdor and detail of his meeting with the witches, she resolves to convince her husband to do whatever is required to realise his vaulting ambition and seize the crown from the visiting respected King Duncan (a fittingly authoritarian Mikala Crawley).

Attention to detail is evident throughout the production. Costumes are textured with feathers, leather and layering, and are themed in colour and patterned accents… Duncan and his eldest son Malcolm (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) in gold and the Macbeths in maroon until the gold garments are also usurped. And just as Macbeth is referred to only as tyrant after the climatic banquet scene (interestingly appearing immediately after interval), we no longer spot him in regal robes from this point.

Care is also taken to ensure that characterisastion does not compromise the high thematic stakes. The Macbeths that Pensalfini and Murphy enliven are multifaceted, showing shades of being both a power-hungry warrior and Machiavellian murderess and also grief-stricken parents with a painful void to fill. And the phases of their respective character journeys are clearly defined. Pensalfini uses the non-verbals of widened eyes of disbelief as he methodically considers the supernatural soliciting of the initial prophecies of the instruments of darkness, contemplating the appeal of the prospect of power, rather than its promise. It is a wonderful initial insight into Macbeth’s inner thoughts that is emphasised by his then commanding stage presence in the character’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ contemplation of what he should do and then frenzied rather than considered response to the sudden appearance of a spectral dagger as potential marshal towards murder. And his delivery of Macbeth’s poignant final soliloquy’s reflection of life’s lack of meaning is a heartfelt and thus moving contemplation.

Pensalfini and Murphy both clearly have a natural grasp of Shakespearean language, delivering their dialogue as if it was modern English, complete with meaningful emphasis and emotional undertones. This works well, especially against the relatively stark staging of the Fringe Brisbane Hub’s intimate pop-up space, to bring audience members into the action. Murphy’s Lady Macbeth is also finessed by the contrast of her character arc. She begins by giving us a formidable character that serves as reminder of how without his fierce female characters, Shakespeare is nothing. Her ruthless, in-control provocation to have Macbeth commit treason, is beautifully contrasted with her later appearances when increasingly consumed by madness.

Angus Thorbuns is powerful in his performance as Macbeth’s foil, the passionately-patriotic Thane of Fife, Macduff and although Macduff’s cousin Ross is a minor character in the play, Rebekah Schmidt brings a gravitas to his messenger role. Joanne Booth does double duty (and deaths) as Lady Macduff and Banquo. As the loyal and protective Lady, furious at her husband for fleeing the country for England to urge rightful-heir Malcolm to retake the Scottish throne by force, she contributes to the particularly strong scene of her character’s only appearance. The brutal scene is often cut in modern performance, however, is important for its illustration of the depths of Macbeth’s butcherous depravity, and its inclusion not only achieves this, but serves as a testament to the ensemble skills.

Director Angela Witcher gives audiences a relatively straightforward production of “Macbeth”; Shakespeare’s language is delivered with clarity, which aids understanding, while the plotting is also clear. This is, surprisingly, the first time that a staged production of “Macbeth” doth come to Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble and the company’s presentation of the dark psychological thriller not only reminds audiences as to the robustness of its story, but does so in a way that makes it accessible even to those without detailed familiarity with the original text.

Although “Macbeth” is already a tight play by Shakespeare standards, plot edges have been trimmed with the elimination of, for example, younger son of King Duncan, Donalbain. Drama and action are not, however, compromised, as is evidently clear in its final impressive physical battle, vigorous sword-fight and all. And the humour of Tenielle Plunkett’s comic-relief porter scene has a modern touch that is appreciated by the responsive opening night audience, which serves as a good reminder of how this classic of the canon of English literature still holds so much for so many interpretations.

Photos c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography

When woe wins

Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Elements Collective

October 14 – 21

Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet walk into a bar… but only grouping gets to stay. Last week the great Dane’s play-within-a-play persuasion saw Fringe Brisbane audiences experiencing the hijinks of a bite-sized “Hamlet”, however, in the second outing of Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix”, it is the Bard’s best (and well known) story of woe that is to be the 30 minutes or so traffic of the stage.

A half-hour tragedy obviously requires a lot of cuts, which occur mostly in exposition. In Rob Pensalfini’s adaption of “Romeo and Juliet”, there is still a Queen Mab mention and a more straight-talking balcony scene thanks to Leah Fitzgerald Quinn’s forthright representation of the only daughter of the never seen Lord Capulet. The play’s iconic lines are also all still there, with a deliberate play up of their bawdiness in any other part belonging to a man et al mentions. While she does double duty as the Prince of Cats Tybalt, Rebecca Murphy is brilliant as Juliet’s maternal servant nurse, obviously fond of talking at length and lewd in her references to love. And Rebekah Schmidt gives us an especially spirited ‘can I get an Amen’ Friar Lawrence, in addition to taking on role as the quick-witted Mercutio.

“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,” Juliet implores in impatient wait for night to fall so that she can celebrate her wedding night with Romeo (Dudley Powell). The almost aside quote is particularly apt for inclusion in this drastically cut-down version of the classic of the English cannon, as it captures the approach fostered by Rebecca Murphy’s detailed direction. Things are sometimes quite frenzied as players swap in and out of roles, which even sees Fitzgerald Quinn’s switching from Juliet to then become Romeo’s manservant Balthazar to tell him of Juliet’s supposed death and offer to sell him some poison so that he can join Juliet in death in the Capulets’ burial vault. And the energy then crescendos theatre sports style as encores see the ensemble t giving us the story in three and then one minute tellings, to end in a hilarious triumph.

At show’s start, the audience is divided down the middle and allocated in allegiance to either Capulet or Montague, to cheer jeer and alike in response to on stage interactions between the two feuding Verona families. The result is lots of fun with literal “he’s behind you” and “look over there” type pantomime moments, as Elizabethan audience engagement would likely have been at the time of the play’s first presentation at The Globe … not to mention the cross dressing of Powell as Lady Capulet, costume malfunctions and all. Audience involvement is also easily integrated through volunteer participation in the story’s iconic masquerade ball dance, with musical accompaniment from Liliana Macarone and Angus Thorburn.  

All elements combine to make this “Romeo and Juliet” a very accessible bite-sized way into Shakespeare’s work. It’s all lots of fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It does, however, leave you wanting to see how the other options would have been handled and hope that though the QSE’s 2022 Fringe Brisbane run is over, we will hopefully see the show back again sometime in the future. In meantime, there always the Ensemble’s production on the Scottish play coming next month.

Sigh no more maaate

Much Ado About Nuthink (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 16 – May 28

“Much Ado About Nuthink” is a classic tale of mischief and romance where ‘he said she said’ takes on a whole new meaning, all set in and around a modern-day Queensland country pub. The localised take on Shakespeare’s iconic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” takes place in the Royal Hotel, home and cosponsor of the league champion Messina Mongrels. And with a background soundtrack that includes Aussie classics like ‘Khe Sanh’ and ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ the Brisbane Arts Theatre production is very much Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Things begin with the footy boys boistering back into town after their grand final victory, to be welcomed to the hotel by Leonato (Dominic Tennison), its licensee and president and of the local Chamber of Commerce. Heros on the footy field, halfback Claudio (Sebastian Woulff) and star player Benedick (Jayd Kafoa in his first production with Brisbane Arts Theatre) lead the charge into the comedy’s dual narratives, the young love of Claudio and Leonato’s sweet and virtuous daughter Hero (Leah Mustard) and the bickering-enemies-to-lovers story of Benedick and Beatrice (Natalie Shikongo). With the former halfback, the bastard Don John (Gautam Abhyankar) scheming to undermine his sister, Donna Pedro (Cathy Stanley), the local mayor, generous patron of the Mongrels and self-proclaimed matchmaker, the stage is set for a lot of fuss over intertwined misunderstandings and misleadings.  

The adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original text by director John Grey is effective and fits Shakespeare’s story nicely, even if it is more rom-com than balanced with the original work’s darker turns. While it still includes the problematic poem/song ‘Sigh No More’ which advises resignation in the face of male infidelity, the story has been effectively modernised as watchers capture phone footage of Hero’s infidelity with Borachio (Colin Ginger), in mistaken evidence of Don John’s claim that she has been false to Claudio.

Shakespeare’s original dialogue is maintained for the most part, although with addition of occasional modern obscenities, however, there are changes, beyond just those pronoun etc mentions necessitated by gender-swapped characters (appropriate for such a feminist play). Changing the arbor of Leonato’s orchard, where characters hide in eavesdrop of others to the beer garden, for example, works a treat. The production also maintains the bawdy innuendo and adolescent humour that envelopes Shakespeare’s wit, deception and slander. Charlotte Pilch is clearly enjoying breathing life into the seemingly minor character of the spirited and playfully flirtatious Margaret, whose biting wit is no better shown than when she banters with Beatrice on the morning of Hero’s wedding to Claudio, teasing her about her changed personality and implying that now Beatrice too desires a husband.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s few plays written in prose rather than the usual iconic iambic pentameter. Its dialogue is fast-based and, as this production shows, still accessible to a modern audience, thanks to performers who are delivering the words without the usual Elizabethan accents, with Ginger in particular, making the Australian style distinctive in the phonological speech patterns, intonations and syllable stresses that he gives the conspiratorial Borochio.  

The soul of the story is, as always, Beatrice and Benedick and there is an expected delight in the way Kafoa and Shikongo trade their merry war’s fast-paced insults about one another’s looks, intelligence, and personality. Shikongo makes Beatrice’s outspoken, fierce independence vividly clear in declaration that she has no interest in love, however, her wit is not always balanced with softness. And there is little sense that the two have a long-standing history.

The standout has to be Kafoa as class clown Benedick. Indeed, his performance is one of the highlights of the show. His witty wordplay dialogue rolls off the tongue with such ease that it is easy to forget that we are listening to Shakespearian English. He delivers the character’s soliloquies with a smooth but still dynamic rhythm, making them appear as if part of a conversation with the audience, such as when laments his inability to write poetry in attempt to write to Beatrice in accordance with the conventions of the time. And it’s his comic energy that brings the gulling scene to life as Claudio and Don Pedro, conspire with Leonato to trick Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice by staging a loud conversation about Beatrice’s love for him, making sure that that he overhears them from his ‘hiding’ spot behind a pot plant.

The play’s other two lovers, the shamed Hero and her beau Claudio, are presented as a nice counterpoint to Benedict and Beatrice, despite both couples’ romances being fraught with miscommunications and interruptions. And after interval, Gordon Wyeth and Henry Marsh delight with the slapstick physical comedy that comes with pantomime-eque appearance of the shambolic Senior Constable Dogberry and his Constable Verges. Hilarity comes not only from the duo’s physical escapades but from the mangled malpropisms that arise from Dogberry’s overconfidence. Little details also add to the joy of the play’s expereince, as we notice pub patrons checking in with the venue’s QR codes and a misspelled home-made banner advertising a ‘masked costume praty tonight’.

This is a busy play for a small stage and while initial sections fly by buoyed by its splendid cast, ensemble numbers see central dialogue sometimes competing with background noise and its Aussie pub soundscape. While it is long, this is a confident production that maintains audience attention. More than a comment upon the patriarchy, the production is a celebration of Beatrice and Benedick’s unacknowledged love, which appears to be appreciated by its audience. Indeed, while the play’s broad humour is highlighted at the expense of its serious undertones, there is much to like about “Much Ado About Nuthink” and its sharp, witty dialogue and humorous misunderstandings.

Fortune’s foolery

Romeo and Juliet (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands Amphitheatre

August 26 – September 12

It has taken the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble until its twentieth birthday year to finally mount a full production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play, “Romeo and Juliet” and the outcome is most definitely worth the wait. Some would say that it’s hard to put a new twist on the oft-performed play, however, the window dressing of fresh interpretations are somewhat irrelevant, if respect is not shown to the original text. And of the many productions I have now seen of the tragic story of woe, this is the best in terms of making the original text accessible to a modern audience while, in many ways, recreating the experience of watching the work as Shakespeare meant it to be, with early acts bringing bawdy sexual innuendo and horseplay, and audience interaction (mostly from William Summers as an enthusiastic jester of sorts).

The cast speak Shakespeare with clarity, as if it’s easy to understand English and so this is what it becomes. They treat the language with a regard that is evident from the show’s very first scene. Enhancing this, a simple but clever set (design by QSE Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini), allows focus to remain where it should be. The ensemble’s return to the Roma Street Parkland also provides opportunity for the accompaniment of live musicians performing a live score (plus pre-show and interval entertainment), to build upon the emotions being portrayed on stage. And though the opening night environment may have meant competition from fireworks and passing parkland foot traffic (as well as some Act One lighting issues), the professionalism of all performers is such that they never even miss a beat.

The story begins in a Verona torn apart by the warring families of Montague and Capulet where the two star-crossed lovers of the tragedy’s title, push back against the expectations surrounding them and, in their greatest act of defiance, find unexpected love. Obviously, the performances of fortune’s fool Romeo and his true beauty Juliet are, therefore, integral to the merit of any production and, in this instance, Liliana Macarone as a gender-blind Romeo and Sarah Doyle as Juliet, do a commendable job.

Macarone makes for an obsessive Romeo who embraces the emotional rollercoaster of her character’s experience and is equally engaging whether in the intense giddy swagger of young love or a blind rage of attack on his sworn enemy Tybalt (John Siggers). Doyle gives us attitude without the oft-proportioned emo disposition. Her teenage hyperbole brings additional humour too in the reactions of Friar Lawrence (Rob Pensalfini) when Juliet arrives at the cleric’s cell melodramatically brandishing a knife and saying she will kill herself rather than marry Paris, leading to the plan that becomes the tragedy of the play’s end. Her portrayal of Juliet as being more angsty that brattish in her teenage sensibility gives us moments of identifiable parent and child interactions that relate her to, rather than alienate her from, audience members other than the usually aimed-at adolescent viewer.

Detailed care is taken to differentiate characters where actors are fulfilling multiple roles and apart from the over-caricature of Juliet’s father-approved suitor Paris, the rich texture of the play is mostly maintained. Siggers is both a firebrand, easily-angered Tybalt and an invested Friar John, unable to deliver word to Romeo as to Juliet’s plan to use a death-emulating potion to replicate her death. And there is certainly plenty of physical energy to Rebekah Schmidt’s engaging performance as Romeo’s mischievous cousin Mercutio, made all the more impressive by her then quick transformation into a poised Prince of Verona, concerned about maintaining the public peace at all costs. She not only allows us to relish in the saucy merchant’s delicious word play and double entendres but she doesn’t overplay his final moments in the character’s famous ‘a plague on both your houses’ decry. And though he does, as the Nurse banters, love to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month, in Schmidt’s hands, we could happily listen to him all day.

The witty interplay of mockery between Mercutio and Juliet’s nurse (Rebecca Murphy) not only serves to highlight the binary oppositions at the core of the play’s themes, but provides some of the production’s most pleasurable moments. Murphy is superb as Juliet’s devoted Nurse and comes close to stealing the show. She makes the comic character endearing rather than overbearing, as she so often is played, and though she is talkative throughout, her constant interjections and interruptions of herself, make her scenes, especially those in interplay with Juliet, a real treat. Indeed, the entire production manages to bring the funny at every opportunity, with actors using pace, pause, emphasis and accompanying gesture to effect to help its audience access the full meaning of the characters’ often layered dialogue.

With its abundant energy, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” is a solid and enjoyable performance of the play. While not everything works perfectly on opening night, the ensemble treats the text with reverence and sticks closely to its intentions even with its gender blind casting, proving just how robust the Bard’s work continues to be.

Behind the Shakespeare scenes

Caesar (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 23 – August 7

“Welcome Julius Caesar” we see posted on a side-of-stage whiteboard before La Boite’s world premiere contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s political thriller “Julius Caesar” fills the space.  As the show begins, there are notices added, a rack of costumes wheeled into place and hand props put in the required locations of their table by the stage manager of the obviously play within a play, Billy Fogarty. Soon, the actors being arriving for their first rehearsal. Chenoa Deemal, Giema Contini, Bryan Probets and Will Carseldine, who are all playing versions of themselves, peel in with praise as to each other’s previous performances. It is an immediately engaging and very funny foreshadow of what is to come, with nods made not only to their respective bodies of work, but also the traditions of the stage courtesy of the Scottish play superstitions et al.

While some scenes from Shakespeare’s tale of a self-absorbed politician and the men conspiring against him appear within the ensuing rehearsals, examination of the complicated, traditionally-masculine work occurs through what is going on around its fringes, which opens up access to the text to the youth audience to which it is particularly pitched. In fact, we never get to see any of the company’s in-season performance of their take of the classic play, climate change angle and all.  When Bryan and Giema rehearse as the eponymous statesman and his traditionally submissive wife Calpurnia, tech week tensions heighten to a clash of creative approaches that reveals much more than just differences in is their processes, leaving us to ponder if perhaps Caesar is not the only potential beast without a heart. 

Like its source material, “Caesar” is about power structure, duty, honour and responsibility, all of which have relevance in a contemporary society, especially when applied to the idea of diversity and representation on stage. And when things fast forward to a post show-within-the-show discussion, we get the funniest scene of all, not just in its initial clichéd questions and answers, but its escalating chaos after exposé’ of outdated attitudes and the use of overly familiar language. In particular, the TikTok livestream of the collective discussion is absolutely hilarious in its every authentic detail as it swells towards calls for Caesar to be slain.

References from the Shakespearean play are peppered throughout “Caesar”. Recent drama school graduate Will, who is playing Brutus, considers Bryan to be a North Star, in ignorance of how Giema and particularly Chenoa feel about his automatic assentation to the lead role. And while monologues from the psychological drama feature within the work, it is one in which Chenoa decries the tone-deafness of prima dona Bryan that leaves the most lasting impression as Deemal powerfully summarises her character’s feelings in relation to worth and about how she is seen.

While clearly catering for a youth market, “Caesar” offers much for audience members of all ages to appreciate, thanks to the collective efforts of its talented cast, support by slick sound (Anna Witaker) and video (Justin Harrison) design. More than a riff of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play trope, this is one of the most meta shows you are likely to ever experience. Its five fierce non-binary and female-identifying playwrights (Claire Christian, Jean Tong, Megan Wilding, Merlynn Tong and Zoey Dawson) have crafted a clever and entertaining clap-back that is fresh and funny, especially for those familiar enough to appreciate the Tiktok feed contributions from Hugh Parker fans, for example.

With themes of power, politics and the patriarchy, there is lots going on in “Caesar” and while its five distinct acts have strong independent voices, this leaves the work feeling more as a sum of its parts than a cohesive whole. Still, under Sanja Simić’s swift direction, it captures audience attention immediately and maintains it well into its 90-minute duration. More than just illustrating the heartbeat to Shakespeare’s words, “Caesar” asks its audience to consider what these words do. And refreshingly, its challenges about representation, politicisation and gender in the theatre are clear without being blatant, instead provoking critical thinking that continues beyond even the play’s conclusion.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

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