Shakespearean gender bender

Gender bender: The play’s populated with feminine identity that is squashed in their own persons and the characters too.   | Photo Credit: Tushar Gupta

The new Indian production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Deshik Vansadia, exhibits flair of presentation and a lightness of touch most certainly, but its deeper portents decidedly lie elsewhere. Vansadia has cast himself as Katherine (or Kate) — the titular virago — in this gender-crossed version in which women play men, and vice versa. This is possibly an attempt to subvert the innate regressiveness that irretrievably mars the original play, according to some readings. The premise is problematic, to say the least. A headstrong, temperamental woman is ‘broken in’ into an obedient wife by the equally wilful Petruchio (Swati Das), a man only interested in her fortune at first. Of course, there is the felicity that actors revel in, when it comes to cross-play in the theatre. And here, the costumes by Sonal Kharade are rich in period detailing and no doubt gratifying to inhabit.

Cast of characters

For the most part, the central conceit works well. In keeping with the rather lamentable but inviolable fact that parts for women in Shakespearean plays were rather thin on the ground, the ensemble here is comprised of mostly female actors. While the swagger on display seems almost inhibited at first, the actors later get increasingly comfortable in their skins. Kallirroi Tziafeta as Petruchio’s clownish henchman, Grumio, and Veena Nair as Baptista Minola, hapless father to Kate and her sister, Bianca (Ankur Sharma), deliver the most accurately pitched performances in the supporting cast.

When the men and their henchmen fashion a veritable gentlemen’s club on stage, with the wine and hor d’oeuvres flowing, it is astounding how it draws instant attention to the missing women in the play, in a way an all-male cast, irrevocably tethered to the status quo, arguably wouldn’t have. The casting of a female ensemble could’ve turned the play into a feminine stronghold of sorts. Instead, they populate a play in which feminine identity is squashed both in their own persons, and in the characters of Kate and Bianca, who must be saddled with unsuitable men who fit society’s bill of what might constitute ‘good’ suitors.

Nuanced performance

The production wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the bravura central performance by Das. Her Petruchio has the chutzpah if not the strapping demeanour of an alpha male, at a time when toxic masculinity was the order of the day. There is an aplomb with which she plays this clearly embittered man. In the singular ‘courtship’ sequence, Petruchio laughs off Kate’s intransigence at first, and then responds to a slap by subjugating her physically. While Vansadia dispenses with the whip that gave the Kate of yore a masochistic edge, Das’ steely glint in the eye and forceful stride makes the scene decidedly darker than the comically frisky interlude it was in the original. Yet, even as he executes Kate’s coercion into marriage, Das keeps us resolutely by Petruchio’s side. Strangely, this does not seem to be on account of her being a woman playing such a man.

Instead, it is the manner in which she delineates Petruchio’s growing empathy for his wife, and his restless love for this woman he has publicly ‘tamed’. The price they have paid for this ill-gotten (but now cherished) togetherness would’ve been too much in today’s world where one cannot quite recover from certain indiscretions. Das’ performance keeps the material sprightly and allows us to believe in its innate progressiveness. Vansadia’s achievement as a director in bringing this revealing contradiction to the surface is not matched by his oddly mannered performance as Kate, which remains mired in utterances, and lacks interiority. Yet, there is no doubt that his Kate complements Petruchio rather well, even if she ends up as essentially a foil, and not quite a leading lady in her own right. One also remains conflicted about whether Kate’s eventual obsequiousness (depicted in the most servile of manners) really upends misogyny, as is purportedly the intention, or counter-productively reinforces it.

Having tasted blood with the dynamic between Petruchio and Kate, the other subplots in the play featuring Bianca (a marginal part, if ever) and her suitors seem all the more superfluous at times. Vansadia’s version is already abridged, but could’ve been served well with further pruning. It is to his credit, though, that the language seems perfectly accessible even if he has faithfully retained the bard’s iambic pentameter. And, the women in the ‘trouser roles’, as they are called, certainly allowed us to look at masculinity with fresh eyes.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 4:16:32 AM |

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