Phoenix Players Tame the Shrew

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 12th-18th March 2012 under the title Thy Husband is (Not) Thy Lord)

Kabi Gethaiga as Katherine, Sahil Gada as Grumio, Sadat Mourad as Petrucio photo by Phoenix Players
Kabi Gethaiga as Katherine, Sahil Gada as Grumio, Sadat Mourad as Petrucio photo by Phoenix Players

Here is the dilemma that theatre directors are faced with, when it comes to staging Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: Should the play’s inherent misogynistic theme be taken seriously or should the play take the stance that Shakespeare uses exaggeration to ridicule chauvinistic views? Put in another way, should the views expressed in the play be heightened to a farcical point or does the humour genuinely reside in the act of putting a rebellious woman ‘in her place’?

Some critics argue that even in Shakespeare’s time, such views would have been unacceptable and if The Canterbury Tales is anything to go by, I think it is safe to say that this was the case.

In Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400)- a few centuries before Shakespeare’s time- an in-keeper challenges a group of pilgrims to a story-telling competition.

After The Scholar tells his tale, The Test of A Good Wife, another pilgrim, The Widow, disgusted by the unquestioning obedience of this ‘good wife’ says, (translation to modern English by G. McCaughrean) “I should think women aren’t the same nowadays. They’ve got more sense and more spirit!…Every woman should know how to put her husband in his place. And a husband’s place is in the wrong!” She then tells the next tale, What Women Most Desire, which shows how a knight comes to discover that “what women most desire is to have their own way in everything,” and is greatly rewarded for making this wise discovery.

Ancent Mulwa as the tailor
Ancent Mulwa as the tailor

George Mungai chose to make a farce out of the whole matter, (Perhaps a reflection of his time? Playing it safe? A combination of both?) in a delightful adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew which closed at Phoenix Theatre on 25th February 2012. Katharina or Kate, the shrew, (Kabi Gethaiga) is not a headstrong woman. She is simply rude and obnoxious and her courtship with Petruchio (Mourad Sadat) involves a lot of rough ‘wooing’.  Kate’s father, Baptista Ole Kaparo (Kenga Sankei) a prominent business man in Athi River, has vowed that he will not marry his younger daughter Bianca (Jacqueline Mungai) until Kate is married.

Bianco’s two suitors, Hortensio (Edward Gitau) and Gremio (Brian Munene) decide to work together to see that Kate is married, so it is Hortensio who tells Petruchio about Kate. However, a third suitor, Lucentio of Kisumu (Neville Misati) is also hotly pursuing Kate. Shakespeare’s already complicated plot is further complicated in this production by the fact that the role of Lucentio’s servant Tranio is taken into the role of Vicentio (Kevin Nzevela), who disguises himself as his master Lucentio while Lucentio pretends to be a tutor for Bianca.

In the meantime, Horatio also pretends to be a music tutor for Bianca and in this adaptation, he is a tambourine-playing Hare Krishna, complete with Indian accent and rolling-eyes and shaking-head gestures.

The plot is peppered with a lot of disguise and mistaken identity, typical of Shakespeare’s comedies, which also includes a cross-dressing pendant (Ancent Mulwa) of the Jah-loving sort. Eventually, Peturchio marries Kate, Bianca elopes with Lucentio and Hortensio marries a widow form Nigeria(Njoki Ngumi).

Jacqueline Mungai as Bianca and Neville Misati as Lucentio photo by phoenix players
Jacqueline Mungai as Bianca and Neville Misati as Lucentio photo by phoenix players

In the last scene, to prove that he really has ‘tamed the shrew’, Petruchio challenges other the married men to a bet, to see whose wife is most obedient. Each one of them sends for his wife but of the three, only Kate comes. Kate then gets the other wives and delivers her (in)famous monologue in which she tells the other women,“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, they sovereign;” Some scholars argue however that the lines that follow allude to a equal, if not deeper obligation on the part of a husband, who is “one that cares for thee, and for thy maintenance commits his body to painful labour both by sea and land, to watch the night in storms, the day in cold, whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;” But this is the clincher for those who are convinced of the play’s chauvinism: that the husband “craves no other tribute…but love, fair looks and true obedience- too little payment for so great a debt.”

The centuries-long debate rages on.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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