By BRUCE DENNILL
The Taming Of The Shrew, directed by Tara Louise Notcutt, runs from 7 February until 3 March 2018 at 20:15 Monday to Saturdays at the Maynardville Open Air Theatre in Cape Town. Book at Computicket.
The Taming Of The Shrew is a play that has added – there’s a clue in the title – to the lexicon of negative language used to describe women. Maynardville Open Air Theatre’s new production of the piece, directed by Tara Louise Notcutt, is produced, directed and performed by an all-female team. Did righting the balance to some degree have anything to do with the choice of this play?
When I was approached to do something for this season, the request was actually, “You have to do a comedy” – I’m not sure this counts. The Taming Of The Shrew is a strangely written play. It’s problematic. There is no emotional journey for Kate, the character at the centre of everything. The story really happens to her.
It’s weird for me watching a woman playing a man who is saying incredibly misogynistic things; statements that were never questioned in Shakespeare’s time. Or now, really…
We’ve set this in the late 2000s. I was a teenager then, so I remember it well. It has a soundtrack of pop, grunge and punk, and listening to those songs now shows what was acceptable then – Shakespeare on the one hand and … the Spice Girls and Courtney Love on the other! The attitudes from that time period have made many of the young men I’ve grown up with misogynistic. And sometimes they don’t even realise what has happened.
There’s a balance that needs to be struck while juggling the political implications of taking a feminist stance (alongside the #MeToo campaign and other similar movements), the value of the art and its source material and the likely pros and cons of attracting or alienating an audience.
Because it’s such an old play, people are likely to coming having already decided if they like the play and its characters or not. It would be very naïve to shy away from the political issues, and I’m an outspoken sort anyway, so I’m comfortable here. I have tried to take the edge off a little, though – there’s no point in having people think that this all sounds like propaganda.
I’d like to see the same words coming out of a woman’s mouth having more of an impact that they would coming out of a man’s mouth. What we’re presenting is more of an adaptation than a classic restaging. We want to claim what we want to say about the period, the language that was used, and all the rest.
Maynardville as a venue places a premium on Shakespeare, which is rare anywhere anymore, and exceptional in South Africa.
It’s amazing that it exists. You’re watching theatre as the Greeks did, in an outdoor amphitheatre. I grew up in Cape Town and as a kid I went to the theatre often with my dad. My first job was in theatre. So I have a real appreciation for what this venue offers. And though many of the works performed there are older, it’s good that Maynardville – and Artscape – is also looking to the future and inviting people like me as a younger director and an independent producer to present work there.
I think Shakespeare works well outdoors because it’s unrealistic by design – characters’ emotions are heightened all the time, so their voices are louder. Practically, it’s interesting seeing people calculating, in our indoors rehearsal space, how long an entrance will take outdoors. It might be that two steps might now take four strides, for instance. It’s a little bit like opera, which I’m fortunate to have some experience in, in that you need to give an audience extra visual cues if you expect them to understand a foreign language. For many people, Shakespearean English qualifies under that heading!
For the actresses, there are no walls to bounce their voices off. I think they’ve figured out what I mean when I ask them to “extend”.
What are some of the other major challenges involved with the open-air set-up? You’ve mentioned projection, but there is also weather, and perhaps a more complicated experience in terms of awareness of the audience and how they’re reacting?
When I walked on to the stage when we moved in, all of that suddenly hit me. The initial rehearsals are easy – it feels like playing with your friends. Now I was in a surreal situation: I’d probably watched about 20 productions there, but now it was my turn.
I still find it both utterly exhilarating and utterly terrifying. Mostly, I’m scared of the unknowns – the rain and wind, mostly.
The Taming Of The Shrew is your first Shakespeare, but the 50th show you’ve directed. Does this production signify, with the all-female cast and the venturing into a genre that’s new to you, some sort of change in direction (as it were)?
I graduated ten years ago, so I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve been able to make. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve self-produced many of my shows – probably around 25 to 30 of them – and have been a project manager on other people’s productions. Those other hats make much of this project much easier. That said, playing more than one role is tiring. I finish rehearsals with the cast, and then I have to go home and do a few hours of admin.
I always keep my teams small – so we can all make as much money as possible as much as anything else – but for this show I have an assistant director and a stage manager, and I’m learning how to hand things over.
Casting women in men’s part is the opposite of the Shakespearean tradition. What were you looking for when casting this production – beyond the necessary acting chops?
This is one of the few times I’ve had formal auditions for a show, and we saw 159 actresses live and had a number of others send tapes in.
My first requirement was people who took to the language naturally. There’s no time to teach that during rehearsal. I also wanted women who were capable of displaying a gentle, subtle masculinity – not the stereotypical crotch-grabbing stuff. These characters need to be real people if the audience is going to recognise and buy into them at all. Then we put people into groups and saw how they played off each other.
The result is an insane team of 17 – including the creatives – only one of whom has played Maynardville before. That’s a unifying factor. We’re all learning. Everyone has their own style, but they fit together. The different characters occupy the same world, and the actors understand the world.
This has been such a wonderful experience working with them and the 149 women I couldn’t cast that I think I want to – for now – only work with all-women casts for a while.
Does this altered dynamic change the sort of notes you need to give your cast?
The note that I’ve given the most is that they can take up more space. As women, we’re conditioned to take up the least amount of space possible – like crossing our legs when we’re sitting, or giving way when walking in a crowd. Men also tend to stand with their weight on both feet, not around the hips as women do. That gives us a different silhouette. If I shout “feet!” during a rehearsal, my ladies know that’s what they need to change.
It’s also the space that your voice takes up. Guys tend to not rush when they’re speaking, where I often find myself circling back to re-explain something. And hair is a weird thing. When I shaved mine off, I was sometimes called, “sir”, and spoken to differently. That was strange…
Fifty shows. Still only 31 years old. Can you keep up this pace?
I remember having five,- 10- and 20-year plans when I graduated. Then, in 2013, sitting in Edinburgh with Three Little Pigs, I thought, “Crap – that’s my 10-year plan, done in five.”
I’m currently doing my masters in dramaturgy, with a view to putting together a handbook – maybe just a 25-point guide – to help people with a leaning toward directing to do it better. I’ve discovered that I love working with teens, and I want to help the teachers teaching them and those who are coming out of high school with no access to higher education. I want to give them access with handbooks that inform them at their different levels of experience.
Still much to come, then. Best moments so far?
Miskien and Three Little Pigs. The first one changed my life, and the second one opened all sorts of amazing doors…
*With apologies to Blur.