Sunday, May 25, 2008

Shakespeare's Thoughtful Thug?


I've done two 'Tamings' in the past week - the BBC with John Cleese in the role of Petruccio, and the 'classic' Burton-Zeffirelli film. Perhaps the most interesting character in the play is Petruccio:

The actor taking on the role, if these two productions are anything to go by, has a lot of choices to make.

And I mean choices - there is no one Petruccio: He is myriad. Both these Petruccios work, and work well. I have a preference, but it is not a judgement so much as life-style choice.

Burton plays him as 'one of the lads' - distinctly 'Tough Boyo from the Valleys'. He is using his own reputation as a hard drinking, woman loving, wife swapping film star as part of the character (and Taylor's Kate is tapping in to the same spring. This works - especially in a film which is so 'big' - almost operatic). There is (or rather, can be) a macho element to Petruccio. He can be seen as the beer lout - especially by other characters in the play, but it is a superficiality which Burton manages to go beyond.

There is an attraction for Kate - when Petruccio sees her, he 'falls' - reflecting in Zefferelli's film, the earlier moment when Lucentio sees Bianca. There is a difference: It is not a puppy dog fawning 'love at first sight'; it is a hit by love's dart, I've met my match.

And he has too - this Kate never really submits, she retreats: Petruccio knows it, and doubts his own strength. There is a vulnerability here - his final command is more wish than assertion.

The fight goes on - he will continue drinking, she will continue fighting.

All this reflects the 60s and liberation element - but it is found in the script (although, as with all film adaptations which have any chance of working in the cinema, there is heavy cutting and shifting of things about). What will hold this couple together (if anything does) is the physicality and 'good sex'. The animal magnetism is paramount. The fight is part of the love - this is consenting bondage.

Which contrasts somewhat with John Cleese as Petruccio.

We have here the 'thinking man's' Petruccio.

Very early on in the performance you are made aware that this is an intelligent man: He is very self aware - he knows his wildness is a weakness. He is logical - he works out how to win Katherine. He is human, and knows others are human too.

Like Burton, Cleese is attracted to his Katherine - but it is not the love dart, it is a realisation, and an admiration. The wildness he sees in her is damaging - it needs to be controlled - but he sees the same extreme in himself, and thinks this is the woman who will force him to become more temperate too. This is a woman worth giving up his 'freedom' for.

Love for this Petruccio is to be found in harmony, not discord.

If Burton is wildman, Cleese is 'Madman'. It is Hamlet mad, and 'Tom O'Bedlam mad: It is a Fool madness that has a cleansing and understanding behind it.

When Cleese says 'Cruel to be Kind' - he means it, and has the academic references to prove it.

The BBC script allowed all of the lines, so there is a natural depth to Cleese's performance which Burton had no chance to develop. It was also a production that played whole scenes in one take - again, allowing for a dynamic which the cut,cut,cut of film finds it hard to sustain.

There is an assurance at the end of this 'Taming' which lets you know they will remain together - this is a marriage which will produce children - and what children!

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