Subverting the gender dynamic

A long association with the works of William Shakespeare has led theatre-maker and educator Deshik Vansadia to directing a new interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew, which will open this week on Friday the 13th. In this ‘cross-dressed’ version, the women play male characters as male, and vice versa. There is no inversion of genders as written, only the casting has been flipped. Vansadia himself plays Katherine, the headstrong virago in dire need of being broken in by the enterprising Petrucio, a part to be tackled by talented Swati Das, who was recently seen in Hindi Medium.

It is a play that has been called out for its regressiveness and misogyny, and its overworked themes have pervaded popular culture — there are countless films in which many a feisty woman has been brought to heel by a male overlord, all in the name of entertainment. However Vansadia, who hails from a conservative Rajput background where gender mores are still outmoded, looks at the play as unflinching satire, in which both genders have to bear the brunt of patriarchy, rather than an affirmation of disagreeable societal attitudes. “We are all being tamed, men or women,” he says. Indeed, his version, in which women take over the swagger and the brutishness, could alienate us from the misogyny on display, and equally, emphasise it all the more, in a repurposing of the play’s premise. One’s predilection for either domination or submission can, after all, be seen as independent of one’s gender.

Taking on the guise of Katherine has allowed Vansadia to confront many of the same fears and vulnerabilities that women have internalised for centuries. What precipitated his helming of this particular project was an unsavoury episode in which he was groped at an airport by a male perpetrator. He remembers blaming himself for what he had worn that day, which brought him unnervingly close to the kind of victim-blaming women have born the brunt of for aeons. He believes this strand of non-consensual parley will be illuminated by the play’s inherent and intrinsic preoccupation with the male-female power dynamic.

Certainly, Shakepeare’s oeuvre is no stranger to cross-dressing. It was only 44 years after his demise, that the first woman appeared in one of his plays — in a 1660 production of Othello, as Desdemona. Prior to that, boys with ‘unbroken’ voices played female parts, and it was widely held that the characterisations of his women were simplistic and unlayered, although centuries of complex portrayals by female actors have put paid to that belief. The ‘Original Practices’ movement of the past decade sought to perform Shakespeare’s plays in authentic settings that reflected how they might have been staged in Elizabethan times. Thus, contentiously, female actors were excluded from this reconstructive enterprise. To redress this imbalance, there have been many more all-women productions including Phyllida Lloyd’s contemporary Julius Ceasar, intuitively set in a women’s prison. It’s a production that has been noted for its ‘muscular strength and ferocity’. Of course, drag is an important part of many Shakespearean farces; women passing as men and vice versa — it’s another Shakespearean trope delivered by, say, Twelfth Night, into the pantheon of popular culture. Camp aesthetics often accompany such portrayals that fabulously send up our preconceived notions of gender, or even sexuality.

The gender-crossed version Vansadia has attempted is not quite a rarity. Gender-reversal works, popular in the west, have remained in the realm of theatrical experimentation, and often subvert the innate masculine and feminine dynamics in a play, almost as a given. Even if all attempts are made to be irreproachably faithful to the original, the casting changes everything. However, this might depend on the prejudices and expectations of viewers themselves. Closer home, in a work such as Chetan Datar’s Jungle Mein Mangal, a cross-dressed adaptation of the classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the resultant melange becomes a tantalisingly queer spectacle.

As part of an extended process, Vansadia’s female cast learnt not to be overtly judgemental of a man’s masculine pride, but rather revel in it. Similarly, his own defenses (and that of his male co-actors) have undergone a radical shift. “My anger is expressed much more physically but inhabiting Katherine’s sharpness of wit has marked a stark difference,” he says. Some of her predicaments, like being married against her will, evoked a strong emotional response in him that, quite possibly, the Elizabethan Katherine would have been inured to, being a product of her times. The internal worlds inhabited by the characters are therefore touched upon by an inescapable contemporaneous outlook. So even though Vansadia has harnessed ‘original pronunciation’ and perfectly rendered Elizabethan costumes, his production of The Taming of The Shrew is an upgrade that might well allow us to make better sense of the battle of the sexes.

The Taming of The Shrew’s preview will take place at the Drama School Mumbai on April 13, at 7 p.m; more details at bookmyshow

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 10:06:08 PM |

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