Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Great Petruchios, Part 2

Petruchio the Great II

Pop quiz time! Which legendary Hollywood star said the following?

"The great roles are always Shakespearean."

Kenneth Branagh? Leslie Howard? Laurence Olivier? Derek Jacobi? Ian McKellen?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.


Surprise! At least, I was surprised.

After such an introduction, it is perhaps not quite as much of a surprise for me to say that it is Charlton Heston who is the second great Petruchio I'd like to talk about (I can't be surprising all the time). His interpretation of Petruchio can only be seen, as far as I know, in the Studio One TV Version of the Taming of the Shrew (1950).

Now, before I watched this video, I already had an inkling that Heston was a great Shakespearean actor, simply because his speech as the Player King is a great moment, one might say the *only* great moment, in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (if you'd like to see it, click here -but if you do watch it, please pay no heed to the silly flashbacks - as Mark Steyn pointed out, the Player King may be old, but probably not quite old enough to literally *remember* the fall of Troy. This sort of thing is not what Shakespeare meant when he called it "senseless Ilium").

The Studio One made-for-TV version of The Taming of the Shrew is considerably less well-known -and almost incalculably less expensive -than Branagh's Hamlet, but Heston again exceeded my expectations. He brings a wonderful, charismatic performance, along with a lot of youthful energy (he was about 27 at the time it was filmed). Like John Cleese, he somehow makes you believe that he really is thinking of each line in the moment - it all does seem to be "extempore, from [his] mother-wit." Cleese and Heston are rare in their ability to do this with Shakespeare, and it has a tremendous impact.

This photograph of Heston is not actually from The Taming of the Shrew, but he looks a lot the same.

I have to admit that Heston overshadows everyone else in the cast, but the other actors are generally pretty lively and entertaining. I liked that by the end of the movie, Petruchio and Kate (Lisa Kirk) seem to see all of his oddities as a shared private joke - definitely makes the story more palatable. The production is set in "modern times" (1950), something which makes the costuming pretty delightful: Grumio wears a propeller hat! Petruchio wears a trench coat and sunglasses!

Lest we get too excited... there are a few big problems. The first is that the film is interspersed with commercials for Westinghouse Radios, Fans, and Floodlights. But this could easily be fixed with a little digital video editing, or even a nice big pair of scissors and some scotch tape (we watched it on VHS). The commercials are sort of entertaining, honestly, so it's not too bad.

"You can be sure, if it's Westinghouse" (I learned that by watching this production).

A much more serious flaw is that it portrays Petruchio's servants as stuttering half-wits. A charitable interpretation would say this is in poor taste, others - like me - might find it a downright offensive portrayal of mental disability. Mercifully, this section is quite short.

Overall, Heston's thoughtful, laughing interpretation of the part made me genuinely like Petruchio, and that, I think is key to making the story successful. Although this film was too short and too TV-oriented to be to be the Taming of the Shrew for the ages, I found it to be worth watching.

A side note to the review: Although both Petruchio's and Katherine's behavior would have been considered strange by their contemporaries, to us nowadays it all seems pretty long ago and far away. But in this film, the modern setting and Heston's unstudied delivery doesn't allow us to distance ourselves like that. Instead, it (perhaps unintentionally) poses the question: how would we feel about the story of Petruchio and Katherine if it had happened in 1950's America? If it were the courtship story of our parents or our grandparents?

"I am he am born to tame you, Kate"

Looking at it this way brings out one of the most uncomfortable aspects of this story - namely, that both Katherine and Petruchio could easily be categorized as abusers.

I think Shakespeare asks us with Taming to consider: what do you do if there are adults in your society who, like Katherine, have never learned self-discipline? She is obviously angry, out-of-control and dangerously violent. Her father seems to be unable or unwilling to deal with the problem, and she is already an grown-up, with adult rights. Can we help people like this? Can discipline be imposed from another person, like Petruchio? He has to get into some pretty harsh behavior patterns himself in order to "help" Katherine, and remember that he's also married to her. Is there any way at all this would ever, ever really work?

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