Adapting Shakespeare

Buggering About with the Bard

Write a play to be performed in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company? Too good an opportunity to miss.

Both my wife Suki and I like The Taming of the Shrew and have fond memories of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor yelling at each other in the 1967 film. But it does present issues for modern audiences: It’s about a man turning a woman from a bitter termagant into a loving and obedient wife by bullying her. There are twenty-one characters of whom only three are women. Shakespeare’s language can be difficult to get used to, and he refers to literature and events familiar to the Elizabethan audience, which we probably now have to look up. The play we know is book-ended by scenes concerning Christopher Sly which many people, including me, have difficulty with, because they seem unrelated to the main story.

So I decided to tear all that down. Shakespeare took many of his plots from Holinshed and Boccaccio; I’d take mine from him; the language would be mine and not his; the cast would be half men, half women; I’d dump the puzzling Christopher Sly episodes and, most significantly, the play would be about a mutual respect that nevertheless acknowledges differences between the sexes. A complete re-write. I took as my text this epigram from Sydney Tremayne:
“The cleverest woman is not the one that can make a man feel that he is a fool but the woman that can make a man feel that he is a man.”

My first draft followed Shakespeare’s plan: five acts broken into twelve scenes. This immediately revealed another problem: too many scene and set changes to interrupt the action and risk losing the audiences’ attention. In later revisions I reduced this to seven scenes in two acts.

Suki and I attended a performance of Aïda in Verona, where each set change involved an army of carpenters heaving and hammering for twenty minutes. Only an Italian opera audience would sit through this. My play would be performed during the drama group’s ‘close season’ so few carpenters would be available. Suki prefers the audience to watch the actors and not be distracted by scenery, so we chose a blank, black set with minimum furniture. The actors and my words would have to set each scene.

The play was scheduled for the end of June but rehearsals could not start until May, by which time a working script had to be ready. It went through twelve versions and was frequently re-edited during the rehearsal period, as director and actors found issues. With a play, the final product is the performance and the script is subordinate to that. The director played a major part in finalising the text: she cut one of my favourite speeches and it was days before I could accept the improvement—and stop sighing.

I cut Shakespeare’s cast of twenty-one to twelve: six women and six men. Gender imbalance persists today: there are more acting roles for males than females. This reflects centuries of male dominance in society and the fact that most playwrights are men. My play’s about mutuality and a balanced cast reflects this. Space on the Horsehay stage is limited and I wanted all my actors to have decent parts.

The major cast change was to turn Peter’s (Petruchio’s) servants Grumio and Gremio into a personal assistant: Georgina (George) and change the role from whipping boy to mentor and confidante. The result was a ‘plum’ part for the actor and a character who integrated into the whole scenes where one or both principals were off-stage. I knew from early on whom I wanted for this part. Being able to visualise the characters helps with the writing. I toyed with the idea of making her a lesbian to explain her resistance to Peter’s advances but Suki pointed out this was unnecessary: George sees Peter’s faults all too clearly and is content in her role.

Shakespeare’s audience was rather left to accept Katharine’s bitterness but I decided my Katie had had to become an adult on the death of her mother, and resented her father’s indulgence of Bianca, the remaining child.

Peter is an entrepreneur with an eye to the main chance. He’s drawn to strong women—George, for example—so finds Katie interesting while recognising that there’s money to be made from the other suitors and her father.

Student Luke’s (Lucentio’s) father becomes his mother, who has sent him and Terry (Tranio) to university to get their MBAs. She also takes over the role of the pedant whom Peter and Katie tease on their journey. Terry’s mother then impersonates her, which adds injury to this insult.

As author I’d have no role once the play opened, but held myself back as understudy. When Katie and Bianca’s father dropped out I took over his role. I found it surprisingly difficult to learn my own words. I put this down to knowing all the versions and being unsure which I should say. But our contingency provision was gone.

When the actor playing one of the suitors dropped out at dress rehearsal disaster loomed. Suki even prepared to go on herself, though it was a male role. However, we were rescued by an actor who stepped in at the last minute and took on and learned the part in two days!

To sit at the back of the auditorium, hearing actors speaking your words and seeing the audience understanding them—and even laughing at your jokes—has to be one of the best feelings in the world. I’d experienced this with another play and wanted to enjoy it again, so I managed to sneak into the back a couple of times when I wasn’t on stage. Totally unprofessional—but irresistible.

With help and direction from my wife Suki and using the resources of Horsehay Amateur Dramatic Society and its group of talented actors my play Katie and Peter was performed before a paying audience on 28th—30th June 2012.

Mike White