For the first time in 62 years of hosting a play penned by the Bard, Maynardville sees an all-female cast take to the stage. This is all thanks to the vision of director Tara Notcutt who bravely set herself the task of tacking on Shakespeare’s “very complex play”, The Taming of the Shrew, which she admits “is in itself a hard sell, because of Kate's speech at the end”. Notcutt, her sister and choreographer Cleo Notcutt, and two of the main ‘men’ in the show, Daneel van der Walt and Lynita Crofford, shared their insight into the darkness of this tragic comedy, the context of that controversial submissive speech, as well as the masculine influences that lead up to it, in this Spotlight.
Notcutt describes The Taming of the Shrew as “at the heart of it, a play about what is expected of a woman in society”, as told from a very specific and subjective perspective. “None of the women have monologues; none of the women speak directly to the audience, because they are viewed through the eyes of the men in the play.” This Notcutt believes, from a relevance perspective, aligns with the fact that “for a very long time this is how women – in life and in entertainment – have been viewed”. Staging it with “all women playing men, and doing it seriously – no caricatures – makes you hear the lines differently”. Notcutt takes this analogy even further in explaining that “there is just something wonderfully evil about watching a woman play a man who truly embraces and believes his own misogyny and chauvinism to the point that he doesn’t feel like he needs to explain it, make any excuse for it, and is extremely at home with it”.
The Taming of the Shrew character that probably most comes to mind with that description is Petruchio, played by Van der Walt. “I mean Petruchio, he’s just such an arsehole”, Van der Walt frankly admits. “When I first read it, I thought, ‘Here is this guy who has never even thought of doubting himself for a second’, but it is more complex than that.” There is more than just the obvious offensiveness to his character. “When we behave in less generous ways it is always informed by some sense or form of insecurity. I didn’t want to make him bombastic and big, but he still needed to be the most powerful person in the room. His status, unlike Baptista [played by Crofford], who’s born into wealth, is driven by an obsessive want. It is almost as if there is a lack of empathy that makes him ruthless, but at the same time also a man-child – he has not grown up!”
Crofford similarly reflects on her character Baptista – the 'respectable' man and father who marries Kate (Alicia McCormick) off to Petruchio as soon as he shows the will-power to control this shrew, because in Baptista's mind it is the right thing to do and what is socially required. For Crofford, Baptista’s arrogance and chauvinism is inherited as “my character has a lot of status as wealthy lord and gentleman of Padua, with good standing". "He claims a room when he walks into it”, requiring that “I play him chest out, and very proud”.
To highlight this type of male-essence in their performances, the cast indeed had to learn how to ‘walk like a man’ as part of the rehearsal process. Cleo Notcutt, as the choreographer, had a key role to play in this regard. Her dancing background allowed her to take the cast through extremes, as in hip-hop (which she is well known for) big male gestures can make a woman appear very masculine. “You don’t necessarily go to that extreme as an actress, but you can take them to that point through dance and then bring them back to the lesser with that understanding in place”. In deciding on this approach, she was also aware of the fact that “Tara flipped the script by bringing in random movement for the 90s period setting that just make things pop”. With this knowledge, her own skills set, and having observed during rehearsal that the cast could to some degree already talk like men thanks to their acting training, she got them to focus on the little things, like the positioning of their shoulders, the way that stand and even the way they carry themselves.
“I combined normal exercises that they do in drama with normal exercises that we do in dance, to take them out of the box”, because here it is not a case of one member of the cast whom is a woman playing a man opposite other men. “Here they are all females acting as men opposite other females also acting as men. So they have to interact with each other differently, which is something that is quite tricky.”
The cast fully embraced this learning experience. “It’s been interesting”, says Crofford, “because all of a sudden we found ourselves standing around having an informal discussion and we were all standing like men; we’ve actually both stopped crossing our legs when sitting.” “I totally get why men sit the way they do”, Van der Walt adds. “It is incredibly comfortable”, but also practicle, as they found out when they had to “make and wear the trifecta”. ”When you wear that, you become aware of the space and what you need to take into account [when sitting and standing].”
“Daneel’s being so polite”, Crofford jumps in. “Basically, we filled condoms with flour and those were worn in our trousers for rehearsals, plus testicles. I went large! I was told by the photographer who was there that day that it was way too big… he thought.” Van der Walt thought hers to be more of an average version, “but after wearing it I am so grateful for my body as it is!” Although such jesting was at play during rehearsals too, the process of finding their ‘inner man’ allowed for great reflection and even social experimenting at times too.
“The thing is, we are still women playing men, so people are going to know that”, Van der Walt reminds. “It is more in the performance, and the standing, and the taking of space that we take on the male persona. I caught the MyCiTi to Artscape for rehearsals and I started sitting like a man. The only people who would come sit next to me were women. So if you, as a woman, sit like a man, a man won’t sit next to you – it’s interesting.”
Apart from owning their space with the firm stance they take (women tend to rest on one hip when they stand), both Crofford and Van der Walt realised that women tend to ask questions and permission, whereas men make statements, which adds to them claiming their space more so than women.
“Almost unapologetically so”, says Van der Walt. “It puts into perspective their psychology, and where guys come from, but also how we are told how we must behave and how they are told how they must behave.” “That’s also in the play, that there is always at some point some guy who’s masculinity is being questioned or threatened, ‘Be a man! Rescue thou mistress if thou be a man!’.”
Because of this realisation, Crofford finds herself reacting to Kate’s final speech in different ways. “As Lynita I am obviously, ‘This is shocking! This is unacceptable! What is she doing? How can she be going along with what she is saying?’ But as my character in the play I'm torn, although I have adapted it from the initial stance that it’s completely appropriate for the time, to where there is now a moment at the end of the play where it dawns on my character as father that it is wrong to be proud of Kate because she is confirming .”
Van der Walt further reflects that, “working on this play, I am so amazed that this was previously seen as a raucous comedy”. “It has funny moments, and there is funny stuff – awe, I can’t wait for you to see how some people perform it, it’s glorious – but it’s not funny, it’s not actually funny, it’s shocking. At times I struggle with what Petruchio does and also as a woman when you are playing that I found it most surprising that people still want it to be that type of comedy.”
“It’s ultimately about bringing the masculine out in the feminine”, says Notcutt, “and allowing this without anyone looking or sounding like they are putting it on”.
"There is something really fascinating watching someone who you know identifies as female, present themselves as male, and doing so honestly, subtly and with integrity and respectfully […] Daneel van der Walt is a great example. Lynita Crofford another. There’s nothing added, no beard, moustache or wig. In the end it is taking what the person naturally has and just bending it and challenging an audience’s perception. I hope people come see it and are almost surprised by the maleness.”
Tickets can be booked through Computicket. But you have to be quick, as The Taming of the Shrew is on stage as part of the Maynardville Open-air Theatre Festival, only until 1 March 2018.
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