The Taming of the Shrew – 1959
Director John Sheard
When Mary Gill asked me to produce the first “Shakespeare at the George”, I rushed in with youth, confidence, inexperience, foolhardiness, determination and bags of enthusiasm. In the first production and the following nine, there were many surprises, feelings of disappointment, enjoyment, and sometimes real achievement, but three things always “came up trumps”, and were responsible for much of the success that followed.
Firstly, there was the Yard. I had not realised how much Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance in this sort of setting, how the man-sized acting area, with 7 ft. coaching arch and low balcony would make actors large and important, how the solid quality of the setting would help the reality of the performance, or how the balcony, stairs, coaching arch, lower entries, pillars and stone steps would suit the plays, giving varied and interesting acting levels. Having no proscenium- arch made continuous action and fast minimal scene changes essential.
Secondly, I had not realised that my wife had a far greater appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare’s plays than I had and after 30 years of help, discussion and argument, I suspect it is even more true today.
Lastly, I “cottoned-on” to the fact that Shakespeare meant what he said. That may not sound very revolutionary, but it proved invaluable. He wanted “A mirror held up to nature” – a real performance above all. “Be not tame, suit the action to the word”. The vigour, contrast and violence must be clarified but related to the text. “Do not overtake the modesty of nature for anything so overdone is from the purpose of the play” – no room for histrionics or gratuitous violence; dramatic events are more telling, believable and frightening, if slightly underplayed. “The word to the action”, the metre must help the meaning. “Hamlet”, Act 3, Scene 1 containing this advice seems a necessary study for any aspiring Shakespearean producer.
But, to the First Play. It had to be “The Shrew”, said the Committee, because it takes place in just such an inn as the George (TRUE). A boisterous comedy is easier for amateurs than a tragedy (NOT TOTALLY TRUE), and if there were any “cock ups” due to performing in a working hotel, such as shouted orders from the kitchen for “Prawn Cocktails”, flushing toilets, dogs, drunken or sober guests wandering on to the stage during the performance, these would not matter too much and might even enhance the production (THAT WAS TOTALLY UNTRUE). It was decided to dress the play in Elizabethan costume, construct a simple stage with audience on two sides and leave the yard just as it was, except for hessian curtains below the balcony; this proved totally appropriate. We began and ended as a group of strolling players and I tried to keep the action fast, colourful, funny and varied. I had a strong desire to make the actors with small parts feel important; they then work harder, raising the overall standard. As a result, certain at first unpromising scenes, such as Biondello’s long speech, describing Petruchio’s infuriating arrival for his wedding and the Pedant’s scenes, found great favour with the audience.
Of the performances, I remember Phil Vallack-Smith’s marvellous voice from the balcony, Sally’s fire as the Shrew, “Bunny” Saunders’ charming idiocy as Hortensio and Howard Benson’s speed and timing as Tranio. Ged Bowd, who played Sly, the drunken tinker, remained on the balcony throughout and increased his drunken “asides” as the week went on.
Twenty-five years on, fun and enjoyment still shine from that first play, for the actors, myself and many of the audience who remember it with affection.
John Sheard – 1984 (Extracted from Shakespeare at the George – the first 25 years)
The Final Scene of the first “Shrew”, lights, colour, everything on stage concentrating the action and the audience looking happy. Photo: ACK Ware Ltd