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Phyllida Lloyd Reveals Challenges of Bringing All-Female ‘Taming of the Shrew’ to Central Park

“The Taming of the Shrew” begins previews on Tuesday night in Manhattan’s Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park season.

The controversial 16th century comedy centers on the relentless and violent efforts of a young suitor, Petruchio, to subdue the headstrong Katherina, and convince her to marry him. The widely-produced play inspired 1967’s “Kiss Me Kate,”  1999’s “10 Things I Hate About You,” and a 1981 production in Central Park starring Meryl Streep.

To tackle the challenging theme, director Phyllida Lloyd, who also helmed “The Iron Lady” and “Mama Mia!,” only cast women — a style she perfected recently with all-female productions of “Julius Caesar” and “Henry IV.” The Good Wife’s Cush Jumbo stars as Katherina, and Petruchio is played by Tony-winner Janet McTeer.

Variety spoke with Lloyd about the challenges of staging a play outdoors, why she prefers doing single gender productions of Shakespeare, and if the Bard of Avon was a feminist. “The Taming of the Shrew” runs through June 26 at the Delacorte.

What made you want to stage “The Taming of the Shrew” in Central Park?
It feels just such an extreme sport out here. You’re performing in broad daylight, and anything from the city can ambush you. You have raccoons, mosquitos, rain, low-flying helicopters to the Hamptons. It is more of a war zone than my usual very controlled atmosphere of the theater is.

How are you handling those elements?
We’ve been told to bring thermal underwear and sunscreen and mosquito spray and massively secure rainwear. It feels like we’re going into some sort of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here,” show in the jungle.

You’ve put together all-female Shakespeare productions in the past, why do “The Taming of the Shrew” this way?
This is a very tricky and controversial play, and I think conventional casting struggles to make sense of the play in the 21st century. Often people end up having to do a commentary on the play. But there’s something about doing Shakespeare with a single gender, whether it is all-male or all-female that opens up certain possibilities. You are able to throw the behavior of the men into a particular relief, and be playful within a slightly larger than life way with it.

How does it let you put aspects of the male characters in relief?
Petruchio behaves appallingly, and really abuses Kate by torturing her in order to force her into submission. I suppose we are able to push those themes slightly harder, and take them slightly further than maybe we would were this a man and a woman playing it. It would be maybe hard to embrace the horror of his behavior without losing complete sympathy for Petruchio. There is a curious equation by which we are able to commit quite boldly to it.

This play has been read in a number of different ways, some scholars think Shakespeare is commenting on sexism, others think he was sexist, what do you think?
Shakespeare was writing about his time, and it was a time when women were beginning to demand a voice, demand a say in their lives for one reason or another, mainly to do with the economics of the time. So I think that he is writing what he sees around him, women for the first time in history are taking their husband to the divorce court. It is full of ambiguity. You don’t know whose side he is coming down on and that’s the beauty of the writing. He offers it up to the audiences and then asks them to interpret it, and I think that is what makes it feel so resonant. There are still women living all over the world who feel like chattels in their societies, or feel that in order to achieve any agency, or any voice in the society they live, they have to conform to certain stereotypes of how women should behave, of how women should be, and so the play feels curiously timely. And all the more so because the United States is on the cusp of electing a woman to the White House, who only has to put one foot wrong and is described as shrewish and hysterical. In that way, I think women are judged very harshly for very strong opinions.

We are having a national conversation around gender, and transgender rights. How does this conversation relate to the play?
We have so far to go in terms of equal rights for women and minorities. Of course we have come so far, but it is astonishing how recent that is. We are still battling for equal pay, equal rights everywhere, and that’s in the Western world, leave alone in some other societies.

Themes of female suppression exist throughout western literature, how did you update the narrative?
An apparent war of the sexes underlines a massive amount of western drama starting with the Greeks, and I think we’ve had to take our own line with this, and not get to influenced by previous productions otherwise we’d get too nervous, not least ones sort of taken place in the park. Cush [Jumbo] is very aware that Meryl Streep was a legendary shrew here, and she is stepping into quite hallowed shoes.

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