The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.
It’s an early Saturday morning at a coffee shop in Cape Town’s Greenpoint and the place is packed. Cyclists, joggers, and other fit folk are moving in and out of the space, getting take-away coffees (almond milk, no sugar please) and discussing their disdain at having to once again share the road with vehicle traffic, now that everyone’s back at work. A large group of talkative cyclists strolls out, bikes in tow, and in walks writer, director and theatre-producer Tara Notcutt.
‘People are so into their fitness routines here,’ she says after taking a seat. ‘It’s like, you’ve just woken up and left your house for the first time to get a coffee, and they’re all talking about how well their 15km morning run went. It makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, really!’
While Notcutt may not be a keen jogger, she’s still one of the busiest people I know. With Mafikeng Road, …miskien, Undermined, and Three Little Pigs being just a few of the award-winning shows to her name, Notcutt’s taken shows to Perth, Amsterdam, has toured major festivals across South Africa and is frequently noted as being one of the busiest directors at the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Now, at 31, she’s embarking on her latest production – a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at Cape Town’s Maynardville Open-Air Theatre.
Presented by Siv Ngesi and The Pink Couch, in association with Artscape, the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre Trust, and Liquidmatch Productions, Notcutt’s version of Taming of the Shrew (assistant-directed by Dara Beth) will see a merging of classic text with modern twists. The latter will comprise 90s fashion, lip-synching, and an all-women cast playing both men and women, supported by an all-women creative team. To top it off, the show marks her 50th show as a director, and sees Notcutt being the youngest director to ever stage a play at Maynardville. 15km runs be damned.
A few days later, rehearsals are already underway and Notcutt explains via email how directing this year’s Shakespeare-In-The-Park play is something that’s decidedly close to her heart. ‘It is a very special thing to be doing this at this time,’ says Notcutt. ‘A lot of things have come full circle – Maynardville was my first job out of drama school, which was ten years ago, so technically this is my anniversary. Isn’t that strange to think? It’s amazing how time passes.’
Growing up in Cape Town, the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre is also something Notcutt came to know from an early age, with her father often taking her to see plays there as a child. Needless to say, those starry evenings spent watching reworked classics on the sloping lawns of the amphitheatre will have an impact on her own show. Being a teenager in the 90s, however, was another highly influential period when it comes to directing this production, explains Notcutt.
‘I really wanted to look at misogyny in the modern world. In the play, misogyny is so engrained and part of the fabric of who the men are, so I wanted to find a time in our recent history or our present that reflected the same attitudes and gentle, pervasive misogyny and entitlement,’ she says. ‘As someone who was a teenager in the late 90s / early 2000s, it’s staggering listening to songs from that time as an adult today. The lyrics are, in a word, shocking, and the entitlement and ownership with which some of them sing about womxn is something that I find strongly resonates with the play.’
To take a cursory glance at the original Taming of the Shrew, you would indeed find a play that’s wrought with the macho-brand subterfuge of many Shakespearean classics. The story begins with Lucentio, a young man who has travelled to Padua from Florence, and his servant Tranio witnessing a scene between the poster-dad for patriarchy, Baptista Minola, and his two daughters Katherine and Bianca. While Bianca has more than one young man wishing to wed her, her father rules that absolutely no one’s getting hitched until her elder, shrewish sister, Katherine is married off. What follows is a tale involving disguises, lies, tricks and more than a few instances of peacocking.
And if I’ve just done a terrible job at explaining the play, you’ll perhaps get a better idea of the plot by watching the cult-classic teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, which takes its premise from Taming of the Shrew. While I never studied Taming of the Shrew in school, I remember watching Heath Ledger do his thing in 10 Things I Hate About You and thinking how great it would be if all of Shakespeare’s works could be accompanied by a contemporary and heartthrob-heavy set of adapted films. Then again, I did study Othello and The Merchant of Venice in school, and benefited greatly from seeing them reimagined on the stage at Maynardville.
Which is why Notcutt’s take on Taming of the Shrew is so important. Maynardville’s annual Shakespeare-In-The-Park is something of an institution in Cape Town. Over the last 62 years, the plays have attracted an average attendance of 15 000 patrons per year, many of these patrons coming from schools across the Western Cape. While studying Shakespeare’s works in school can be a hugely beneficial part of the curriculum, from what I remember of my school days, there wasn’t much room for unpacking the ways in which Shakespeare’s characters could fit into the modern-day context, or how we – as confused schoolkids – could adapt and apply their various faults and merits to our own lives. Being able to witness a version of Taming of the Shrew that tackles issues of gender, representation and more through the lens of humour, while still staying true to the original story, can be nothing short of life-changing for a high school student – and many an adult too!
Of course, Notcutt is not doing all of this alone. Cast-wise, she’s brought together a spectacular group of performers. Alicia McCormick and Daneel van der Walt take up the lead roles of Kate and Petruchio, while the well-known Lynita Crofford plays Baptista. Dianne Simpson brings a comedic edge as Gremio, while Kathleen Stephens, Naledi Majola, and Masali Baduza play Lucentio, Tranio and Biondello respectively. Following her visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, Buhle Ngaba plays Bianca, while Ann Juries plays an upbeat and comedic Grumio. Stage actress and stand-up comic Kate Pinchuck then rounds up the team with her role as Hortensio.
‘They are simply wonderful,’ says Notcutt. ‘They are wickedly funny, incredibly smart, and extremely hard-working. I’ve only worked with two of the ten actresses, and I’m excited to learn from and work with new people.’
And when all is said and done, what is it that Notcutt hopes to have personally achieved with her play? Her answer comes in three short and resolute points: ‘I want to present something honest on the stage. I want to create a warm, safe environment for a company to work. And I want to make sure that the next time someone is casting a show or looking for designers, they start to actively make more diverse choices.’
While I’ve been a fan of her work for many years, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Notcutt is one of the most important contemporary directors in South Africa, and that Maynardville is one of our true theatrical gems. To see Notcutt’s vision brought to life with her team at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre is something that no theatre-lover should miss.