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Jasper Britton

Published 17 April 2008

Man wants rich wife, man finds rich wife, man beats rich wife into submission; an age old story which is better known as Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew. Possibly one of the Bard’s least fashionable plays in recent times, mainly due to its misogynist reputation, The Taming Of The Shrew has made a comeback over the last year in the form of an RSC production played as a double bill with Fletcher’s sequel The Tamer Tamed. Now in the West End, Matthew Amer caught up with the Tamer himself, Jasper Britton, to talk shrew in his dressing room at the Queen’s Theatre…

The ambience of Britton’s dressing room could be one of tension, anger or resentment. The day after any press night – on this occasion The Tamer Tamed – is never the most enviable of times to conduct an interview. What did the critics say? Does Britton know? Does he care? To be honest he really should be used to it by now as the recent press nights were the third in the space of a year for The Taming Of The Shrew and the fourth for its lesser known sequel The Tamer Tamed. Having been involved with the productions since January 2003 and received rave reviews at every stop along the way, Britton should be happy with its reception at the final stop of the production’s long journey. But you can never tell, especially with the typically outspoken Britton… “It was one of those really frosty press nights where hardly anybody dares move, make a sound or breath. I do a little bit of clowning at the end of the first half which relaxed them a bit, then they all got smashed in the interval, came back and thought they were in a circus. But I did wake up this morning in a good mood for the first time since I can remember.”

"They all got smashed in the interval, came back and thought they were in a circus."

Since the two productions opened in Stratford last March they have garnered critical acclaim wherever they have travelled. Much of the buzz surrounding them is due to the fresh eyes with which Gregory Doran and his company of actors have looked at The Taming Of The Shrew presenting it more as a love story between two disturbed characters than a battle of the sexes eventually won by an overbearing and violent man. This is possibly the first time in the play’s 400 year history that it has been performed this way. “It is like the play is covered with this skin; you pick it up and think ‘that is how it should be played. But there is no ‘should’. On the first day of rehearsals [Greg Doran] said a brilliant thing, ‘let’s not do The Taming Of The Shrew’. I thought ‘they’ve changed their minds and haven’t told me! What play are we doing now?’ But what he meant was ‘let’s not do The Taming Of The Shrew as it is always done; let’s not do the clichéd version. Let’s try and see what the words tell us.” What the words tell us when taken literally, according to Britton, is that The Taming Of The Shrew is actually a very romantic play. Neither Petruchio nor Katherine are deliberately antagonistic, but are both struggling with personal problems; the death of Petruchio’s father and Kate’s position as the unloved sibling. “I personally think that Kate’s final speech is simply a woman deeply in love who is saying ‘I’ll do anything for that man. If you really loved your husband and they loved you, you’d do anything for them.’”

The Tamer TamedThere is only so much that can be done to bend a text to your own will. The words cannot be altered to make Petruchio a mild mannered man with a penchant for knitting baby’s booties or Katherine a devilishly demure damsel. Surely if the Bard had meant for Petruchio to use all means possible to take control of a raging Katherine, that is what the words will say and that is how it will come across. “I don’t think that Shakespeare was interested in writing any character without compassion, which is how Petruchio is typically played. At rehearsals I did feel like I was building a house of cards. As I turned each page I thought ‘any minute now I’m going to come across the line or the speech that undoes everything I’ve done so far’, but it never happened.”

"It is not called The Beating Into Submission Of The Shrew!"

In preparation for these productions, Britton took his inspiration from T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, in which White talks about his attempts to tame a wild animal. In this case it was not a shrew but, as cruelly given away in the title, a goshawk. Although a shrew shares little common ground with your average hawk – nor would it want to for fear of becoming its latest dining experience – and the shrew in the play is not a shrew at all, but a lady, Britton saw White’s techniques echoed in Petruchio’s actions towards Kate. “It occurred to me that Petruchio is madly in love with her, but does not know what else to do, so applies the laws of being an austringer (someone who trains and flies hawks) to Kate. What the book taught me is that if you’re going to tame a hawk you have to stay awake as well. You don’t eat either. The whole point is that you go through it together. It is not called The Beating Into Submission Of The Shrew, taming is something where you have got to earn trust and love and you have got to be nice. You cannot force it.

 

For Britton and the rest of the company, the schedule for their performances over the last year has been a gruelling one which has taken them from Stratford to Newcastle, across the Atlantic for a Christmas season at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC before finally making it to the West End stage. “I tell people it is about 100 miles from here to Stratford, but it took us 7,000 miles to get here… and it feels like it.” This final transfer to London was one that for a long period of time last year hung in the balance, leaving many, including Britton, thinking the unthinkable might happen; the RSC would not have a representative from their Spring/Summer season transferring to London. “I just thought, ‘well it ain’t going to be the two hit shows of the season that I’m in that do not transfer to London, meaning nothing from the Stratford season goes to London for the first time in the 43 year history!’ I set about doing what I could to make it happen, and thank God for Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright. They are just great, great people.”

"I did shout at the person who was taking photographs and paused for about 20 seconds looking as scary as I could."

This tough schedule, which included a sell-out performance in America on Christmas Day, would be enough to knock the stuffing out of any performer, but a few things in particular about the production schedule over the last year annoyed Britton. “Frankly, I think matinees are the invention of the devil.” It is not just the timing of shows that, after a year with barely a break, has been bringing him out in a rash of irritability… “In my travels around Washington DC, every American I came across I thought was just great; they were friendly, they were warm, they were great. But, put them in an auditorium together and they became really awful.” (We, of course, do not endorse the views of hard working actors who may well be irritable after a long spell without a holiday. We merely publish these views on the internet and awaits the complaints.) “They think that it is okay to talk all the way through a play. I had this in the Kennedy Centre and one night it was so bad that I went ‘Ssssssssssshhhhhhhh!’ to them because there was a full fledged argument going on in the stalls. They think it is okay to take photographs with flash cameras. They think it is more than okay to turn up 20 minutes late and just march down the aisle demanding that the little old ladies with torches get them seated fast. And if they’re held at the back of the auditorium until the interval, they start shouting and complaining because THEY’RE 20 minutes late. If you’re late you should hang your head in shame, not rant and rave at the back of the stalls!” Just as the tirade against American audiences seems to be coming to a close, Britton gets a second wind. “I did shout at the person who was taking photographs and paused for about 20 seconds looking as scary as I could… And the coughing… THE COUGHING! I pretend to be ill [in The Tamer Tamed] and I cough. So they all start coughing back at me like it was a coughing contest!”

In the grand scheme of things the couple of problems Britton points out do not compare to the pleasure he clearly gets from performing. He has been in the business too long now for someone who is not in love with it. “In a way I’ve been an actor since I was 12, because that was when I did my first school play and I haven’t stopped since.” Having an actor for a father (Tony Britton) obviously helped the younger Britton to catch the acting bug. The bright lights of the West End stage and the apparent glamour of the theatre seduced him at a young age. However, opening nights and seeing his Dad on stage were not always enough to hold young Jasper’s attention. “I had a plastic laundry basket full of a wooden train set and we’d always bring that.” It was as a side effect of his father’s career that Britton decided to tread the boards. “He used to give me old scripts to draw on the back of. In one history lesson I was so bored that I got a script out and started to read it. A bell went ‘clang’ in my head. I thought ‘you mean somebody posts you this script, it comes through your letterbox, you read it, go somewhere and practice it and then you turn up at Drury Lane and do it every night? That’s fantastic!”

And so a star was born, albeit one who has a lot on his mind and a lot to say about it. In fact, that is something that Britton can’t help but recognise in himself, “I’m terribly arrogant and think I can get away with saying all manner of terrible things. I usually end up on a weekly basis writing sincere and humble letters of apology to all manner of my colleagues.” Which begs the closing question; what has not made it into this interview?

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