Her piercing eyes and sharp cheekbones have always given actress Michelle Gomez the look of a woman not to be messed with, the kind of woman who would not suffer fools gladly or allow herself to be pushed around, writes Matthew Amer.
Indeed, previous interviews have depicted the star of hit comedies Green Wing and The Book Group as an interviewee who, when met with a personal question, would simply throw up a wall rather than bow to the pressure of questioning. All of which makes her casting in The Taming Of The Shrew so intriguing.
Yes, Katherine, the shrew of the title, begins as a strong-willed woman who knows her own mind, a trailblazer of 17th century feminism who is as quick-witted as any man and unafraid to stand on her own two feet, but by the end of Shakespeare’s most controversial play she is beaten into submission by the husband from hell thrust upon her, Petruchio.
The constant stream of abuse leading to prostrate submission prompts many to question why the piece should ever be performed in a post-feminist society, with many directors choosing to lighten the mood and shape it as a love story.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Conall Morrison has chosen to take the show in the opposite direction, and it was this malignant darkness that attracted Gomez to the role. “There is no love in the play,” she tells me, contrasting her production with the famous Burton/Taylor film, “it’s a lie. That’s not in the play. It’s a man’s fantasy of what a woman could be like if you were a misogynist.
“This is not Kiss Me Kate,” she continues, “This is brutal. This is one mad man’s fantasy of what a perfect woman would be. That perfect woman ends up being a Stepford Wife; there is nothing of her spirit left.”
“This is not Kiss Me Kate. This is brutal”
This is the very nub of what proves problematic about the play; Petruchio, the abhorrent lead, never gets his comeuppance, he is never brought to any kind of justice. In fact, Petruchio wins the day, abusing Katherine until she is broken and entirely in his command, finally parading this prime example of womanhood before an envious collection of men. Everyone does not live happily ever after.
Gomez, who takes great pains not to generalise with any of her answers, points out that the play is as relevant today as it has ever been, putting on stage for everyone to see the sickening truth of an abusive relationship. She has been disturbed by the odd nights when “It does feel like there’s a few wife-beaters in who holler away at inappropriate moments,” but for the most part, the audience members who have caught her at the stage door have been concerned for her well being.
They may well be right to show such concern. Gomez describes herself as having “been tragic now for 14 months,” a long time to spend being systematically taken to pieces on a nightly basis. She admits that it has taken its toll on her – and on press night, she was in tears at the show’s finale – but is heartened by the knowledge that her Petruchio, Stephen Boxer, is a “modern, metro-sexual man” and that it has been equally difficult for him. Recently she has found sanity in caring for her four month old Jack Russell puppy Frank, but previously she just had to “find as much positive distraction as I can”.
Even after a year of on-stage abuse and humiliation, she is excited about the final month of the production. The cast has been in rehearsals to sharpen the piece up for its London run at the Novello theatre, where London audiences will see a “fresher, cleaner, smarter version”.
“By the end of any long run,” Gomez tells me, “there’s a certain amount of auto-pilot. I can only speak on my behalf, certainly not for the others, but just by the sheer nature of doing it every day for months on end… so to come back to it and be given the opportunity to breathe new life into it makes it all the more exciting.”
“I’ve been tragic now for 14 months”
For the native Glaswegian, the daughter of a photographer father and model mother, the offer to star in the RSC’s The Taming Of The Shrew came at exactly the right time. Having made her name as a comic actress on television and received plaudits for her turn as German air stewardess Gretchen in highly-acclaimed West End comedy Boeing Boeing – “I do miss saying the word Nibelungen in German” – she was ready to push her boundaries. “I just wanted to do something that scared me,” she admits, “that took me out of my comfort zone and challenged me.”
In her performance, which moves from the comedy for which she is known through despairing anguish and struggle for survival to total emotional numbness, it is clear that this is a performance which will surprise many Gomez fans. It is anything but comfortable.
It would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the big bold characters for which Gomez is known. Though those striking eyes can be cold and powerful, they mask an actress who, for quite some time, has not fully believed in herself and who didn’t like to admit her profession for fear that it wasn’t a proper job. She still carries business cards she had made offering herself as a cabbie for the day when the work dries up, and while there is the hint of a gag in it – and laughter does come naturally in Gomez’s company – the true fear behind it is clear. It is good to hear, then, that a year with the RSC has boosted her spirits in very much the opposite way to which Katherine sees hers destroyed.
“Its real gift to me is confidence,” she smiles. “I take myself seriously as an actor now; I used to find it a wee bit embarrassing and would never really admit to it, but it’s really given me confidence.”
In addition to buckets of confidence, Gomez will soon have a postgraduate qualification in teaching Shakespeare, which she has been studying for alongside performing in The Taming Of The Shrew. The actress has not always been a fan of the Bard’s work, and it was her rediscovery of Shakespeare that prompted her to dabble in education: “I had a very bad first experience of Shakespeare at school and now I’m determined to put that wrong right and just make Shakespeare as vivid and live as possible.”
“I do miss saying the word Nibelungen in German”
While Gomez’s confidence may have been boosted, the postgraduate study hints at an actress who is still unsure of her own talent and/or the validity of her career. It is as though if the taxi driving doesn’t work out, she has other options. Self-deprecation comes naturally to the Scot, who, on a couple of occasions mock-berates herself for the phrases that pass her lips during our conversation. She emphasises the comedy within The Taming Of The Shrew, while claiming that none of the laughs are for her.
This statement is just not true. Before the descent into abuse, Gomez’s feisty Kate is as lewdly amusing and quick-witted as anyone in the cast, though Gomez herself would probably just refer to it as gurning and taking pratfalls. But as the play progresses, the comedy must drop away from her situation.
It was an earlier dramatic stage performance as a ghost in Abandonment that led to Gomez’s television break in The Book Group. “I was trying to be a serious dead person, playing the piano… badly,” she says, of the play. Yet writer/director Annie Griffin saw the implicit comic potential. “You try and have a straight face wearing a dress the size of the Titanic with Elaine C Smith staring back at you,” she says, justifying her Les Dawson-esque performance.
Her Scottish BAFTA-nominated performance in The Book Group opened the door for screen roles including Feel The Force, Wedding Belles, Oliver Twist and, of course Green Wing. “That was us unashamedly finding each other ‘hysterically’ funny,” she says of the hospital-set comedy series which mixed sketch comedy with a sitcom format, building a cult following. “That was quite a wondrous time of my life. Everything for a while after that felt a little beige, I have to say.”
That is as emotional as Gomez seems to get about past projects, her mind staying fixedly in the present. The future also seems unclear. There are projects milling around as projects have a habit of doing, but nothing confirmed just yet. All Gomez can be certain of, come 8 March, is that her year of being tragic will have come to an end and that, while Kate will have been hollowed out for the final time, Michelle will be stronger for it. How will she celebrate? “I am going to be planting trees and eating cake, that’s it. There’s no corsets, there’s no gurning, there’s no pratfalls, there’s just sitting and staring, staring at a threadbare carpet, that’s my plan.”