The 2017 Bard in the Botanics festival production of The Taming of the Shrew, which closed last week in Glasgow, added a question mark to the title and a lot of extra scenes to the script, in a bid to detoxify the play’s emphasis on wife-taming and male supremacy. According to the Glasgow Herald, it also added ‘plenty of gallus Scots phrases and camp physical humour too, to keep it light and bright with plenty of spanking’.
I don’t know how much actual spanking took place, but here’s James Boal’s Petruchio smacking Stephanie McGregor’s Kate:
But spanking must always have been in the front of the audience’s mind, thanks to designer Gillian Argo’s pop art set, which emphasized the sexual politics of the production’s 1950s setting:
Let’s take a closer look:
The panel on the left, of course, reproduces the famous (or, depending on your point of view, notorious) 1952 advertisement for Chase and Sanborn coffee:
We’ve seen before that this is a much imitated image, often in connection with productions of Shrew set in the middle of the last century.
But the 2017 Gillian Argo version isn’t a mere photographic reproduction of the original: it is a painting, a close imitation but different in its fine detail. Many of those differences will be just a matter of economy, or the change of medium. But one of them is intriguing, and subtly changes how the image works.
(Please make allowances for the fact that a stage set painting isn’t meant to be seen this close up.)
The difference I’m referring to is in the wife’s eyes. In the painting, you can see more of the whites, giving her a wider-eyed and more panicked look. And that’s because she’s looking backward and upward towards her husband. It’s presented to us as an everyday scene of domestic behavior that we happen to be witnessing, and that seems understandably distressing for one participant.
In the advertisement, in contrast, she looks out of the picture, directly at us. With his back to the camera and his face seen only in partial rear profile, the husband barely registers as a character; even in this extreme situation, his wife is ignoring him! The relationship that matters is with the reader, the young housewife who is presumably considering the question of whether or not to buy some Chase and Sanborn coffee. The caption threatens her: ‘Woe be unto you!’ And the spanked wife reinforces it by engaging her in eye-contact. ‘I was foolish, and look what’s happening to me,’ she seems to be saying. ‘It could happen to you too! SO BUY THE COFFEE!’
Maybe in 1952. But not nowadays…