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Canto Bard

  • August 16, 2005

By Pia Zain & Simon Hegarty

It was an experience and an education for us (Simon and Pia) who don’t understand any Chinese languages to watch the recent production of The Taming of the Shrew. The play had been adapted by director Ling Tang and her cast into Cantonese, and then retranslated back into English through the subtitles. (It was staged 29 July – 31 Aug by The Actors Studio, at The Actors Studio Bangsar.)

The Taming of the Shrew is a funny, engaging play about Katerina (the Shrew) and her younger sister, Bianca. Bianca is not allowed by her mother to marry any of her many admirers until Katerina is tamed… and thus the story begins.

Simon: In my opinion, when Shakespeare is stripped down to his bare essentials, and you keep in mind that he was a popular entertainer of his time, you realise that he wrote theatre primarily to entertain people… and what better way to see this in his writing then in the The Taming of the Shrew. This adaptation and production certainly did not lack in entertainment value and pure theatre.

Pia: This play is typical Shakespeare comedy – farce, really. It deals with the fiery relationships between men and women, and sketches the battle of the sexes in slap and tickle bawdiness. However, it also has a disturbing subtext in the submission of Katerina to her husband, Petruchio, and acts as a warning about breezily entering matrimony without truly thinking through the repercussions.

Simon: This is also reflected in the machismo of Lucianto and Hertensio towards Bianca and the merry Widow. It could be seen that The Taming of the Shrew was the breaking of the spirit of the two men as well. The two women end up with their husbands running around doing whatever they please. Shakespeare certainly showed the relationship between men and women from all angles, and with many different, layered results, and serves as a reminder to both sexes about their sometimes egotistical approach and expectations about relationships.

I don’t think that there were any standout performances. But all performances were solid, with greater or lesser degrees of hamminess. The director, Ling Tang, utilised the stage to its fullest with actors’ entrances and exits being at all angles in this sometimes fast-paced, scene-changing rendition. She had to deal with a somewhat clumsy set design, and utilised its plain appearance to its maximum. Not forgetting that this was a modern Cantonese adaptation, the use of technology brought The Taming of the Shrew nicely into the 21st Century… but this could have been rendered with more subtlety, creating a fuller effect.

Pia: I am not sure I agree with Simon that this was a modern Cantonese version of the play. The actors were dressed (absolutely atrociously in my opinion) in school hall grade costumes mimicking Italy in the 1600’s. The overall effect was cheap – though funny at times… the only problem I have is that I am not sure if the costumes, set and props were purposely cheap and cheesy or if they were an attempt at Shakespearean realism gone horribly awry. For example, when the music instructor is hit on the head by Katerina with a harp, he stumbles out on stage with a styrofoam cut-out harp (painted on one side only) over his head. The costumes looked like they were cut and sewn by a particularly blind Aunty who was a friend of the crew, and the make-up looked like it was slapped on with no fore-thought, apart from matching the eyeshadow with the frock. All in all, it was garish and amateur looking – but it was funny.

Simon: It was pasar malam baroque.

The costumes reminded me more of a pantomime, but this is a funny play. The underlying wit and humour of Shakespeare’s writing came through. When Shakespeare was first performed at the Globe, in an open air theatre, to the general public of London in its days, it did not have multi-million pound production values, with famous costumiers, lighting or set designers. So I disagree with Pia. When it was written, the play was designed to be played by anyone, on any stage available. I think the grand productions that we have come to expect sometimes swallow up the theatre involved, and whilst good use of available theatre resources is always advisable, its more important to get the simple things right. It’s much more useful to play Shakespeare in an entertaining way… though the costumes might have been gaudy, how more gaudy can you get than Renaissance period upper middle class Italy?

Pia: Well, then, it wasn’t a modern Cantonese version. The thing about Shakespeare’s writing is that he CAN be performed and produced in any context – and I agree that it doesn’t have to be a multi-million dollar production. I just found it a bit dissonant: the mixture of a Cantonese adaptation… which was translated back into English from the adaptation, mind you – bringing classic lines such as “This brainless is totally idiot!” … with grade school costumes and props… with the insertion of Bollywood references… and Malaysianisms in Malay and English… and meanwhile, they were all pretending to be in Italy! It was too much of a mishmash for me. I thought it had the possibility of intelligent translation and adaptation, but keeping it superficially in Italy was silly. It didn’t work for me, and it did not bring out the fullness, robustness and brilliance of what Shakespeare can be.

Given all that … I thought that the cast acquitted themselves with great enthusiasm. I thought that they played it with energy and verve, and I wish I understood Cantonese so that I could really get the translation – there were times when the mainly Cantonese speaking audience laughed their heads off, and we two just didn’t get it. I thought Loo Aye Keng as Katherina and KK Wong as Petruchio were great.

Simon: I think Pia got this all wrong. No, I wouldn’t have paid RM52 to see this, but I thought that it was an entertaining production. When you go to the theatre or cinema you want to be entertained – it’s all about suspension of disbelief. Even with the overacting, and less than perfect set design, there was that suspension of disbelief. It was entertaining. Everyone walked out of the theatre having enjoyed themselves, and with a smile on their face. In which case, this production had done its job.

Pia: I enjoyed it, actually. I had fun, which is hard to say in theatre in Malaysia these days – we sometimes take ourselves oh too seriously. I enjoyed the creative quirky bits, and I understood a lot of what was going on without referring to the subtitles. I thought it had tons of energy, and tried to present Shakespeare in an accessible, interesting way. It just wasn’t my favourite version of this brilliant play, and I felt disappointed that there were quite a few missed opportunities to make it special.

All in all, we found ourselves disagreeing on several things in terms of this production – but the one place where we did agree was that it was entertaining. It wasn’t a brilliant theatrical adaptation, but then again, it wasn’t meant to be. It was a young, energetic stab at a classic text. We would probably go back and see other productions by this enthusiastic cast and director – but we wouldn’t pay top ticket price for the pleasure.


Pia Zain is one of the founders of Dramalab. Simon Hegarty is her business partner.

First Published: 16.08.2005 on Kakiseni