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Janet McTeer Discovers Her Masculine Side in The Taming of the Shrew

The Tony winner makes her free Shakespeare in the Park debut as Petruchio in an all-female production of Shakespeare's comedy.

"If you're gonna do something like an all-female Taming of the Shrew," Tony-winning British actress Janet McTeer says, "you might as well do something ballsy. Why not?"

That was the key to unlocking Shakespeare's troubling comedy for Janet McTeer and director Phyllida Lloyd's free Shakespeare in the Park staging of Shrew. McTeer heads the company, but not as Katherina, the "shrew" of the title, but as her macho tamer, Petruchio. All of the gender lines are blurred in Lloyd's Public Theater production, which experimentally turns on its ear a work that many view as sexist.

McTeer first played Petruchio for Lloyd in 2003, in a similarly conceptual all-female production at Shakespeare's Globe in London. In the ensuing years, McTeer felt like she had unfinished business with the play, owing to a very short rehearsal period. When the stars aligned, a call was placed to the Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis. And now, as McTeer says, "here we are."

Janet McTeer as Petruchio in Phyllida Lloyd's free Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacorte Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

This is your second time playing Petruchio in an all-female Taming of the Shrew. Take me back to your first production, in 2003.
The first time was at the Globe Theatre in London. They had done lots of all-male performances and decided they wanted to set the record straight slightly and do some all-female. Mark Rylance was running it then, and I was doing Duchess of Malfi with Phyllida at the National. I knew I was going to turn Shrew down because I don't love the play as a straight play, and I didn't really feel like playing Kate. When he called me up I was all ready to turn him down, but when he said, "Will you play Petruchio?" I burst out laughing and said yes.

How did Phyllida get involved, and how did this new Shakespeare in the Park production come about?
We [initially] had a different director at the Globe, who had taken ill after the first week of rehearsals. I called Phyllida and said, "Will you come in and help us out?" The following day, she stepped up. We went away for a weekend and tried to figure out how on earth we were going to make this thing. We didn't really ever have enough time to explore it as much as we wanted to. It was really good fun and a concept where we just thought we could do much more if we had more time. I've always wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park. When it was a time that seemed to suit both of us, we called up Oskar and here we are.

What is it like to come back to Petruchio after more than a decade?
In 2003 we were all wearing classical dress. Petruchio was essentially a different [character] from a different play. I played a classical gentleman last time, and this time I'm playing Axel Rose on speed, which is a whole different physicality, different voice, everything. The only thing that is, I suppose, the same, is that when we did it the first time around, we found that my being über-macho released a) the fun of it and b) the game of it done with all women. That was what we knew we could take.

Top: Katherine Hunter and Janet McTeer as Katherina and Petruchio in Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Taming of the Shrew in 2003 at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Bottom: Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo as Petruchio and Katherina in Lloyd's 2016 free Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte Theater.
(© Donald Cooper/Joan Marcus)

How did you develop the physicality of "Axel Rose on speed"?
I would sit at home with my family and watch Mick Jagger and Henry Fonda, and then I'd follow boys in the street and follow their movement. It all evolved from there. What I tried to put together, at least in the first six scenes, was basically all the bad boys I would have wanted to go out with at seventeen that I hopefully got over by the time I was twenty. And then, I let that go and just played the guy and got into the complexities of that.

You said earlier that you don't love Shrew as a straight play. Do you look at it differently now that you've been in two very conceptual productions of it?
That's an interesting question. It is such an incredibly tricky play, for the obvious reason that it's about a man who treats a woman appallingly, and tames her. Except, of course, you ask any Shakespearean scholar, and they'll say, "Yes, but, he gives one of the longest speeches [in the canon], the very final speech, to the woman. So maybe the entire thing is ironic." That's the endless conundrum about Taming of the Shrew: Was he being ironic or not? Doing it the way we're doing it, certainly I think it releases a lot of fun. Do I see the play differently? I'm not sure. You'll have to ask me if I [ever] see a straight production. I'm so immersed in this one I can't quite see it from any other point of view at the moment.

Is this Shakespeare in the Park experience everything you wanted it to be?
What's great about the park…All theater is unpredictable. That's the definition of theater. But boy is it unpredictable in the park. Saturday and Sunday, we went up an hour late each night, because it was raining solid. Almost the entire audience on both nights stayed. Almost two thousand people in their ponchos, soaking freaking wet. And then [on a different night] in the middle of my taming monologue, it was so windy I think I inhaled half of the park and started coughing. One of the band [members] had to hand me a pretend beer that I knocked back. It's a great unpredictability that's extra fun.

And you're going from here directly into Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway this fall. How exciting is that?
I'm really excited. To go from überman to überwoman in a year onstage is pretty cool.

The key art for the upcoming Broadway revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, starring Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber.
(© Jason Bell)