In the year the #MeToo movement really took a foothold and we commemorated the centenary anniversary of (some) women achieving the vote, a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew might seem an odd choice of production to stage.
Fortunately for the Sheffield Crucible and its festive audiences, Kiss Me Kate has Paul Foster at its helm. The hugely experienced award-winning director who has shepherded many musicals to the stage is in charge of Kiss Me Kate. The Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack musical is Sheffield Crucible’s big Christmas show this year.
Foster has just finished a piece of quiche. I hope he’s having something else for lunch too, given the amount of energy he is expending on bringing this musical to the enormous Crucible stage.
“I don’t have to tell you, it’s a 980-seater theatre and we have to fill it with this show,” he says. “I don’t think I would want to be directing a revival of Taming of the Shrew, but with this there is an opportunity to do something smart and make it relevant to audiences today.”
The trouble with The Taming of the Shrew is that it is the story of a woman ‘tamed’ through starvation, sleep-deprivation and humiliation into marriage material. Any production of the play today really needs to find a very smart way to deal with such material. Based as it is on the plot of ‘Shrew’, Kiss Me Kate faces similar issues.
“I’m a feminist, I have two young daughters and I would want them, and anyone, to be able to watch this with a sense of pride,” says Foster.
“I am working very closely with Rebecca (Lock, who plays Lilli) and she has been very involved in her reading of the piece; it’s definitely not a case of me imposing my directorial ideas on her when it comes to this role.”
While it is based on The Taming of the Shrew, Cole Porter’s musical does offer a contemporary director a get- out clause with the framing device.
The musical is about a theatre company staging a production of the Shakespeare play, with director Fred playing the role of Petruchio and his ex-wife Lilli playing Katherine in the stage production. It allows the actors to comment on the production in which they are playing the Shakespearean roles.
“It has this wonderful challenge for the actors in that we have this sort of triptych where they are in the 1940s, in the 16th century and we also acknowledge that we are here in 2018 because it would be weird if we didn’t.” This is the kind of detail that makes you realise this year’s Christmas Production in Sheffield is in safe hands. Foster is a smart director who wants theatre to speak to audiences today. It matters to him, for reasons that will become clear, that theatre is accessible to all.
One of the vital ingredients of this production is, of course, the music. With songs including Another Openin’, Another Show, Too Darn Hot, Brush Up Your Shakespeare and of course the title song Kiss Me Kate, it is full of the kind of songs that helped to make the era in which it was first made the golden age of the musical.
“The score and the songs are incredible. There is an 11-minute dance number at the start of the second act and there is also a section of ten or 12 pages that are pure dialogue. In terms of something that tests an actor’s range, there is very little else like it,” says Foster.
For the director, doing a good job of this production is about more than just another job. Increasingly, as arts funding is squeezed, theatres around the country rely on their Christmas shows to bring in the funding that will help sustain them around the year.
“My wife is a teacher, so I see at the sharp end the effect of the decrease in funding for the arts,” says Foster.
“When I was growing up my dad was a forklift truck driver and my mum cleaned hospitals, so theatre wasn’t something that was in my environment. It was thanks to schools funding that I was able to go to theatres in Manchester where I grew up, Liverpool and I think, once, the Sheffield Crucible.
“It’s important that young people from all backgrounds continue to have those experiences.”
Festive shows are, of course, an expensive business. For many families the Christmas show is an annual treat.
“I think the fact that we know a lot of people might be bringing children to see a theatre production for the first time with a production like this is something really important and it does make it a responsibility and a privilege.”
Much like being given the job at the helm of a musical that has the potential to be joyful, important and a chance to say something about the world: a rare opportunity.
Taking a production of Taming of the Shrew as its heart, the book of the musical by Sam and Bella Spewack takes a divorced couple – Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham who are working together as director and actor and are cast as Katharine and Petruchio in a production of the Shakespeare comedy. The framing device of the production lays on top Cole Porter’s music and throws into the mix gamblers and gangsters and a case of mistaken identity.
Kiss Me Kate is running at the Sheffield Crucible from December 7 to January 12.
Tickets from the box office on 0114 2496000 or online via www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk