Literature in Lockdown is a special blog series in which our students share what they’re doing whilst face-to-face teaching is suspended at YSJU. In our latest post, Shakespeare: Perspectives student Estela Green shares her review of The Show Must Go Online’s Zoom production of The Taming of the Shrew. She watched this in lieu of our cancelled trip due to the closure of theatres back in March. There are silver linings after all.
(The Show Must Go Online Taming of the Shrew is available for free on YouTube here. Donations also welcome.)
Without dwelling on it too much, the week beginning 16th March 2020 was convincingly one of the craziest weeks that any of us have ever experienced. That week saw normal life turned on its head as social distancing measures were introduced, schools closed and the nation was asked to work from home, in preparation for the enforcement of an official lockdown the following week. It was a chaotic whirlwind of news updates and cancellations as the UK rapidly tried to adjust to its new normal.
Sadly, one such cancellation which occurred during this week was the ‘Shakespeare: Perspectives’ module trip to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew at Newcastle Theatre Royal on Wednesday 18th March 2020. The performance would have taken place just two days after Boris Johnson advised the nation to avoid theatres and other leisure venues to restrict the spread of coronavirus.
Those of us taking the ‘Shakespeare: Perspectives’ module at York St John University had been really looking forward to the theatre trip; it was a chance for us to see a Shakespeare play that we studied this semester performed live, which is always an exciting experience. Suffice to say, news of the cancellation came as a disappointment but an entirely understandable one at that.
Nevertheless, The Show Must Go Online’s socially distanced adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew proved a fantastic substitution to the RSC’s production which we could not attend in person. The Show Must Go Online is an initiative which streams live read throughs of William Shakespeare’s plays each week on YouTube, using the video conferencing app Zoom. Each performance is available to watch on YouTube after the live streaming.
Theoretically, this may sound like a very restrictive way of accessing theatre. However, this is simply not the case. The Show Must Go Online not only provides a remarkably similar experience to watching live theatre in person, but it also goes beyond that to give its viewers additional information which they otherwise might not be able to access if they were watching the production in person.
Viewers watching The Show Must Go Online’s production of The Taming of the Shrew were immediately given a warm welcome by host Robert Myles in true ‘usher’ fashion. Following this, Myles invited the cast to introduce themselves by stating their character, profession, and location. It was fascinating to learn that the cast was culturally diverse as the residence of the actors ranged across the globe. Additionally, it was wonderful to see that the cast was comprised of professional and non-professional performers. This made the production seem all the more personable to viewers.
Myles then handed the performance over to Debra Ann Byrd, who provided an informative preface to The Taming of the Shrew. Byrd is founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and was the first write- in-residence at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. She summarised the play’s plotline, socio-historical context and genre with compelling enthusiasm. This contextual backdrop to a performance is typically only accessible through the purchase of a programme at the theatre. Subsequently, the fact that Byrd communicated this information verbally was not only incredibly enriching but also felt unique to The Show Must Go Online. Byrd seamlessly lead the audience into the world of The Taming of the Shrew.
Although the actors had script cues on screen, all of the performers came across as off book and seemed extremely well rehearsed – in spite of the fact that the performance had no prior run through. As a result, the read through ran seamlessly with no hiccups whatsoever. For this reason, it felt like watching a professional production, live at the theatre.
Many of the actors utilised props to comic effect. Memorably, Miguel Perez as Petruchio donned a wild blonde wig, hat and scarf during Act 3 Scene 2 when Petruchio arrives at his wedding to Katherina in outrageous attire. Additionally, David Sayers as ‘Lord’ gobbled popcorn while he observed the play as part of the Christopher Sly subsidiary narrative. Uses of props such as these were engaging and brought a dynamic element to the production.
The only design aspect that could have been improved was use of costuming. The actors appeared in clothes of their own choice which varied drastically in colour, print and style. If the actors had been assigned a set dress code, for example ‘all black’, there would have been greater visual consistency.
Nevertheless, the performances were fantastic. Miguel Perez’s Petruchio precisely portrayed the character’s bear-like masculinity and Sally McLean’s boisterous Katherina emanated intelligence and autonomy. The cast’s ability to retain focus during Zoom interactions was particularly impressive. All performers reacted to their scene partners on screen, even when they were not at the centre of the action. This sustained dramatic relationships throughout the performance even though the actors were not in the same physical space. Consequently, it was easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief.
At the end of the read through, Myles asked the cast to discuss their interpretation of the characters, relationships and story. This provided viewers with a brilliant insight into the play and the actors’ performance choices. Additionally, the cast responded to questions which were sent in on the live stream YouTube chat which accompanied the read through. Unless you attend an after-show Q&A, audiences typically don’t get access to this kind of discussion in face to face live theatre. Like Byrd’s contextual preface to the read through, this after show discussion felt exclusive to The Show Must Go Online.
In our current situation, we are sadly unsure of when it will be safe for theatres to reopen and life to return normal. In the meantime, it’s reassuring to know that socially distanced theatrical initiatives like The Show Must Go Online are available and running at such a high standard.
For further information, opportunities to watch, donate and take part see here.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Cedric Watts, Wordsworth Classics, 2004.
“The Show Must Go Online: The Taming Of The Shrew.” YouTube, streamed live by Rob Myles, 26 Mar. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAMtHmeHzio.