“It was as if the audience was holding its breath” I said. “It’s like that every night” he answered.
I was talking with Oliver Thornton who plays Bianca in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s all male The Taming of the Shrew. He had found a quiet room at the National Gallery of Art and was happily ensconced in a comfortable chair as we talked by phone. I’d seen his performance the night before so the image of his tall, willowy Bianca was fresh in my mind.
Those opening lines were part of the discussion we both knew must be had – that most difficult scene which every director of Shrew must face – Katherina’s final monologue. But first I asked about what it was like to play the part of a woman.
“I’ve played various degrees of drag” – perhaps most notably, Oliver played Felicia in the London production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – “but this is the first time I’m asking the audience to take that leap of faith, to believe I am a fully realized woman.”
He wasn’t concerned with physically portraying Katherina’s beautiful sister. “I have a dance background so I have some mixed experiences playing roles in the more feminine vein,” he continued.
While Bianca’s movements and high heels weren’t an issue for Oliver, he wears two corsets which, he admits, “I’m glad to take off at the end of the evening.” We talked of the stamina the show requires. Most of the cast doesn’t leave the stage for intermission, but instead continue acting out the wedding banquet as part of a charming ‘Intermezzo.’ And then there is the pre-show, and, of course, all that transformational costuming and makeup. Each performance requires more than 5 hours time. Double that on weekends.
“It does require endurance,” he added. “People think [a performance] happens automatically. But it’s hard work for all departments, crew, stage management, if we’re doing our jobs well. This is a big show, epic in many many ways.”
During the Intermezzo, the audience is invited onstage where the wedding banquet continues on all levels of the set and audiences can watch the characters interact and take up instruments scattered about and break into song. Oliver, whose Bianca is falling in love with Telly Leung’s Lucentio, performs Duncan Sheik’s ‘Barely Breathing.’ “I can hear the audience sing along in parts of that one… The Intermezzo is my favorite part of the evening. I adore it. I never feel I would rather be sitting downstairs with a cup of tea. It is so special and so gratifying to be singing to someone who is a foot away.”
The hardest part has been finding the psychological journey of his character. “The truth is it took a lot of time. It was a huge responsibility. I wanted to make sure that women sitting in the audience didn’t feel like my performance was disrespectful or in any way towards the stereotypical.
“Speaking to a lot of young women it was interesting to hear about the social expectations of women, how they should act, how they should speak, and that young, modern women are still imposed on in that way, are still asked to behave differently because they are a woman.”
“When I sort of relaxed and stopped worrying about it, I realized I don’t really need to think in a different way. As men and women, maybe we are told how we are meant to think or feel, or behave but we don’t really look at the world with different eyes. So, the reality is all I need to do is play the truth of the scene because that is the truth of the character. And it just so happens she’s a woman. That’s the biggest journey and it continues to grow.”
And thus we arrived at Katherina’s final “I am ashamed that women are so simple” monologue. How does he feel about the speech? And how does Bianca feel?
“The second act has some difficult themes, those taming scenes, for example. And it is a very difficult thing to reconcile yourself – whether you are a woman or a man – to that last speech, hearing it through today’s filters. I spent hours wondering what Shakespeare meant when he wrote it. Was he expressing how he felt about women because he lived in a different time, or was he making a comment on mysogyny.
“But I do know our director [Ed Sylvanus Iskandar] wanted to explore the notion of love in its many many forms and how, when we truly love someone, deeply love, how we learn to compromise, to submit – not in the way of giving up, but of giving. Saying I love you so much I can be what you need me to be.
“Bianca came from a more traditional setup – she was married off to the richest suitor. When she hears [Katherina’s] words, she understands something she never thought possible [about love]. In that last moment, when Bianca and the Widow kneel with Katherina, I really believe it is about the solidarity of sisterhood. I think it’s a beautiful moment.”
The Taming of the Shrew
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
“This nontraditional take on the show may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope people come along, keep an open mind and allow it to be what it is. I think they will find it’s a wonderfully entertaining evening, and that’s what theatre is about and should be.”