It is a truth universally acknowledged (if you’ll pardon the mixing of literary references) that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, at best, problematic. It’s the story of a man torturing his wife into submission, after all, and to be honest there’s not really any easy way to sidestep that fairly significant plot point without completely rewriting the play.
While most of us would probably be willing to admit that Taming of the Shrew is far from Shakespeare’s best, Canadian actor, writer and comedian Gillian English has gone a step further and made a list of everything that’s wrong with it. And I give you fair warning: that list will take down not only Taming of the Shrew but also beloved teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You (in spite of the manifold and much-missed charms of Heath Ledger, which are acknowledged more than once). Also A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare in general. Friends. Big boobs. Justin Trudeau. In fact there are very few people, places or things that make it out of this very funny but also very angry show unscathed.
And that’s because while Taming of the Shrew may be the starting point, it actually opens the door to a much wider conversation – about our obsession with reviving Shakespeare plays, even the bad ones, just because of who wrote them. About the damaging impact of romanticising misogyny and turning it into a Hollywood teen movie or a banging rock anthem. About the dangers of pitting women against each other, or telling little girls that boys are only mean to them because they like them. In a show peppered with hilarious personal anecdotes, self-defence classes and a demonstration of the opening number from Get Over It – which I’ve never seen but now desperately want to – it turns out there’s also a lot of serious stuff for both women and men in the audience to unpack and peruse at our leisure.
As a performer, Gillian English quite literally roars on to the stage, making no secret of her anger not just that Taming of the Shrew exists, but that everything bad within this 500-year-old play still needs to be discussed in 2019. She’s loud, in your face, and not afraid to be a bit confrontational, and yet there’s something about her enthusiasm and frank acknowledgment of her own failings that makes her irresistibly likeable (at least I thought so – I can’t speak for how the men in the audience felt about being taught the best way to rip off a penis). Add to that the fact that what she’s saying – even, or perhaps especially, the shoutiest bits – makes a huge amount of sense, and you’ve got the recipe for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but that also stimulates an ongoing discussion and a desire for change going forward.
Not everyone will love it; die-hard Shakespeare fans will no doubt take offence at the way their idol’s work is dismissed, and ironically the kind of men – and women – who most need to hear the show’s messages will probably steer well clear. But for those willing to open their minds, and who are okay with witnessing one of their favourite teen movies being ripped brutally to shreds, this is definitely one to see if it passes through a town near you.
10 Things I Hate about Taming of the Shrew is touring the UK, including heading to Edinburgh – for full dates, and details of Gillian English’s other shows, visit gillianenglish.com.