The emancipation of women isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when watching Shakespeare’s misogynistic play, The Taming of The Shrew, but The Globe’s new, all Irish, production celebrates a momentous watershed in their struggle for equal rights.
It’s 100 years since women won parity with men in Ireland and the history of their fight from oppression plays at the heart of Caroline Byrne’s passionate production that’s set in 1916.
It all starts off rather jolly with musicians Loïc Bléjean and Tad Sergeant entertaining the audience with uilleann pipes and bodhran as they arrive. You’d think we were attending a ceili.
Throughout this tragi-comic story, it’s thrilling to listen to traditional Irish music from the band, which also includes accordion player Mark Bousie and the haunting voice and playing of violinist Úna Palliser.
But the lightness and foot-tapping gaiety of their playing can’t hide the dark heart of The Bard’s problem play.
No matter how it’s dressed (and dramaturg Mona Regan’s lilting and cheeky adaptation is a joy) the subjugation of its “Shrew,” Katherine – her life and independence crushed by her abusive husband – still leaves an unpalatable taste in your mouth.
Byrne strips away the froth and romance to heighten the politics of the play and presents it as a story of rage and empowerment, a battle of the sexes in which its menfolk are seen as the weaker sex (as, sure they are, in any Irish sitcom).
So welcome to Padua, now metaphorically moved to County Donegal (or so it seems), where marriage is an institution based on assets, estate and income. You can have whichever woman you like for the right price.
But no-one wants the fiery red-headed Kate. Free-spirited, independent, unconventional and feisty, she is the antithesis of her pretty younger sister, Bianca.
Their father wants them off his hands, and offers large dowries, but he insists that Kate must marry first before Bianca can walk up the aisle.
There is a lot of hilarity to be had in the first act with the Irish blarney played so strongly by some of the townsfolk that it was like watching an episode of Ballykissangel. The humour trips effortlessly off everyone’s tongues.
Suitors plot to marry the flirtatious Bianca (a radiant Genevieve Hulme-Beaman) – who uses her feminine wiles as subtle manipulation of the men in her life – and their cock-eyed conniving is worthy of any sitcom.
They line up the assured Petruchio to take up the challenge of breaking Katherine. He sets about his task with relish, stripping Edward MacLiam’s anti-hero of any attraction or romance. We see no evidence of love.
This Petruchio is a brute, a heavy-handed traditionalist who expects obedience – and isn’t afraid of using a leather strap to get it.
Their wedding sees a fearful Kate bound and manhandled, a puppet to convention, in what is a major turning point in the production.
Byrne has fun at the wedding feast by throwing in a bit a slo-mo, freeze frame and fast forward action as the well-oiled locals get rowdy. But the mood turns considerably darker before the reception even gets under way.
Kate wants to stay to toast her marriage but her scheming husband has other ideas. “She is my goods, my chattels!” roars Petruchio as friends and relatives support her.
What follows, as he starves, abuses and humiliates his new wife into submission – all in the name of love (and how many wife-beaters say that?) – is galling to watch.
Aoife Duffin, who replaces Kathy Rose O’Brien, howls defiance and fury at the start of this lively production, and closes it with much of the same, as the acting company puts away its version of Shrew and change into their civvies.
She makes a thrilling and vibrant Kate who, despite her final speech praising her husband as her lord and master, suggests that her spirit – and that of Irish women everywhere – wasn’t entirely broken.
Hanging the tale in Edwardian Ireland, during one of the country’s key moments in history, is a brilliant flourish that makes it accessible and understandable. Ireland, and its people, lend themselves perfectly to the temperament of Shakespeare’s volatile Italians.
There are some memorable support performances in this largely ensemble piece. Amy Conroy is a treat as the black-garbed widow who haunts the stage and Imogen Doel and Molly Logan make a winning double act as servants.
This spirited and engaging Taming of the Shrew runs in rep at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre until August 6.
The Taming of the Shrew
Caroline Byrne sets The Globe’s production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1916 Ireland on the eve of the emancipation of its women. Passionate & bursting with Irish blarney.