If the shrew fits: Daneel van der Walt, Masali Baduza and Ann Juries in rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. Picture: Jesse Kramer
If the shrew fits: Daneel van der Walt, Masali Baduza and Ann Juries in rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. Picture: Jesse Kramer

Award-winning director Tara Notcutt was nothing but a twinkle in her mother’s eye when I was studying The Taming of the Shrew as a setwork at an all-girls high school. Brilliant English teachers who spoke with well-rounded vowels and rolling Rs guided us, but I used to find the voices of the girls reading the men’s parts in the play incongruous.

Now, three decades later, Notcutt is directing the same content with a 17-strong all-female cast and crew — and I not only enjoy watching them rehearse but laugh at their attempts to stifle their responses to fellow actors’ interpretations.

Notcutt also matriculated from an all-girls school. It is down the road from Maynardville Open-Air Theatre in Wynberg, Cape Town, where she’ll present her 50th show this February.

For her, the occasion is both surreal and serendipitous. She is half the age of the theatre that has been home to Shakespearean productions for 62 years, and it’s a decade since she graduated from university, "doing something I imagined doing growing up".

Accustomed to working behind the scenes at the Maynardville festival, she was delighted to be asked to produce a work this time. She’s the youngest director and the fifth woman to have that honour.

What influenced the casting? "Part of being an independent producer is that you’re paying for it, so you can do what you like. I put in a proposal for an all-female Twelfth Night last year, then Geoff [Geoffrey Hyland] staged his production. The feedback was that [the organisers] liked the idea of an all-female company and that it was a good time to be doing this sort of thing, because of the themes tackled in this particular play," says Notcutt.

Of the team, all are Maynardville newbies except the vocal coach, who has worked twice before at the venue, and Lynita Crofford, who plays Baptista and performed in the 1982 production of The Taming of the Shrew.

What can audiences expect from this portrayal of the battle of the sexes that looks at gender, marriage and family as the headstrong Kate copes with Petruchio’s attempts to woo and win her? Notcutt says she "wanted to change it up and give Cape Town audiences something they don’t always see" while giving the creative team a platform to demonstrate their skills and attract more work in the future.

Though the play is a dark comedy, Notcutt likes to call it a comedy horror. "You can expect a Taming quite unlike other people tackle it. I’ve taken a particular stance with an all-female team, being the age that I am, seeing the play in a certain way, and bringing out that which is close to my heart."

The structure of patriarchy is one aspect. "A play like this has a lot of men in it. There are only two female parts [Kate and Bianca], but the women are very much alone and outside the men’s world," says Notcutt.

"We’re looking at moments where people know something’s not quite right, but nobody who has the freedom to say something about it does anything about it — the accountability of men to other men. It’s been a balancing act between what is in the play and creating characters who are real."

A modern take

Notcutt has taken the classic text and found a modern parallel, recontextualising the play for the 2000s, an era in which she believes Kate would have been completely at home.

While some see The Taming of the Shrew as an old play with old values that really shouldn’t be staged any more, Notcutt notes that there are many women who still need permission from their partners to do things.

"It might not be culturally the same in the play, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there," she says.

And while the stage directions are very specific, she’s purposely excluded actions of physical violence. "Things do get heated, but the relationship between Kate and Petruchio, and abuse, sits in a much more difficult, intangible place. The interpretation we’ve taken is more of a comment on the men."

Kate rejects any societal expectations, doesn’t fit in, behaves terribly and is described as a devil. The family does not know what to do with her because she doesn’t listen to anybody. Bianca, on the other hand, knows the part people around her want her to play. Instead of taking on the usual naive persona, she is smart, witty and playful, adjusting her behaviour to ensure that she gets the spoils of the male world, thereby making herself a prisoner of that world.

Notcutt’s sister, Cleo, whom dance fans may remember for her successful annual hip-hop showcase, Cape Town’s Most Wanted, has undertaken the choreography, while set designer Jo Glanville also roped in her sister, Summer, to assist with construction of the set.

A limited budget meant the Glanville sisters set about cutting and constructing the wooden framework in the studio. "I’m conceptual and detail-oriented," says Jo Glanville; "[Summer] is the fabricator who has a lot of experience building stages, so the construction is strong."

The outdoor stage setting, need for safe storage and lack of wing space influenced the decision to build a huge cupboard as the set. Able to be transformed into many scenarios, it also packs flat, so it’s easily transportable and festival ready. "It needed to be able to hold everything, almost like a dress-up wardrobe," says Glanville. "My conceptual resonance comes from the idea that every world being created here, every patriarchal system, every endeavour, every space that limits women or creates more potential and more accessibility for men, has been constructed. We’ve created those worlds."

And the idea that the whole world comes out of the cupboard calls into question those defined worlds.

Glanville says: "The set never looks grounded or stable. We don’t commit to the whole space, only a flimsy version of the space, because none of those systems we create for ourselves really exists. We’ve made them and we could just as easily dismantle them."

The cast controls the set changes with a real sense of hype and silliness, but in a slick and organised way.

"We’ve managed to integrate it in a way that feels natural and fun," Glanville says.

The production runs until March 3 at Maynardville, Mondays to Saturdays. Book at Computicket or Shoprite Checkers

Shrewd adaptations

10 Things I Hate About You

Loved by teenagers of the early 2000s, this movie put the late, great Heath Ledger on the map. It’s a sassy, funny update of The Taming of the Shrew. The movie, set in a Seattle school, also stars a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Julia Stiles. The soundtrack is stellar and it captures the zeitgeist of the late 1990s perfectly.

Here’s the school’s English teacher, Mr Morgan, to his class: “Now, I know Shakespeare’s a dead white guy, but he knows his shit, so we can overlook that. I want you all to write your own version of this sonnet.”

Enough said.

Vinegar Girl

Award-winning American author Anne Tyler writes deeply observant and poignant tales about everyday life in contemporary America. If you haven’t read her Man Booker Prize-nominated A Spool of Blue Thread, you’re missing out.

In 2015 Tyler took up the challenge of adapting The Taming of The Shrew as part of a project to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Other authors who got in on the action included Margaret Atwood (an interpretation of The Tempest) and Jo Nesbo (Macbeth).

Tyler’s retelling, Vinegar Girl, centres around a girl called Kate, her pretty younger sister, scientist father and his assistant. Will there be chemistry? You bet!

Kiss Me, Kate

This is a musical about a cast of actors putting on The Taming of The Shrew. Sure, the concept might not be for everyone, but Kiss Me, Kate is a classic. It debuted in 1948 and the words and lyrics are by virtuoso American composer Cole Porter.

It’s a whirlwind of a show. And it was apparently based on the real story of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, an acting couple who warred while starring in a stage production of The Shrew.

The next big production of Kiss Me, Kate will be by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, showing next year.