Saturday 19 June 2021

Blogjune Day 19 - on problematic musicals

So, I went and saw a production of Kiss Me Kate this evening.

For those who are unacquainted, this is a 1948 musical, with songs written by Cole Porter, based around a Baltimore theatre company who is putting on a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Relationships on stage mirror those in the show-within-a-show, some local gangsters get involved, and wackiness ensues.

This production aimed to modernise the show, with a contemporary setting, references to contemporary pop culture and politics, and a couple of gender-switched characters to both create more female roles and add some queer representation. Some of the song lyrics were also changed to modernise what were quite outdated values. And artistically, it was an excellent production - a tight band, wonderful performances and great set design.

Here's the problem though - yes, you can update the cultural references, and improve representation (though, to be fair, there was maybe one person of colour in the whole show...) but when the underlying plot is still problematic, then it's still problematic. I went with a friend who is a social worker dealing regularly in domestic violence cases, and I could tell that she was uncomfortable, and we had a good talk about it during intermission. We both agreed that there was a lack of real consent - or even agency - for the female lead. At the heart of this show, the character of Lilli/Kate is subjected to repeated physical and emotional abuse and humiliation, and her moment of agency is when she makes her choice between two awful men, returning to her ex-husband Fred with the song, 'I am ashamed that people are so simple' - substituting 'people' for 'women' in the original version!

Yes yes, I know it's Shakespeare, but the ending of Shrew will never not be creepy, and turning it a modern musical just makes it more archaic and uncomfortable. Plot and lyrics aside, the music was fantastic!

Ugh, I really just need to focus on having a good time at the theatre, and not overthink these things too much!

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