Actor Simon Scardifield talks to Terry Grimley about playing Shakespeare's mistreated heroine
Simon Scardifield is the actor who gets to play Kate, the "shrew" of the title in Shakespeare's most contentious play It's well known that in Shakespeare's day all the women's roles were played by male actors, and you might have thought that this particular form of female impersonation was a long-lost craft.
Occasionally directors are tempted to try Shakespeare with an all-male cast, as Declan Donellan did with a famous As You Like It featuring Adrian Lester as Rosalind, and Edward Hall has taken it a step further with his permanently all-male company, Propeller.
A company with an ethic seemingly more akin to a football team or a rock band than most loosely-affiliated theatre ensembles, Propeller has the unusual policy of rewarding actors who accept its uniform (low) rates of payment by automatically offering parts from one production to the next. You can see Edward Hall's account of how the company's philosophy evolved on its website, propeller.org.uk
Now Propeller is taking on The Taming of the Shrew, the play which has sometimes led to Shakespeare being accused of misogyny. It comes to Stratford-upon-Avon from tomorrow night as part of the RSC's Complete Works festival.
Simon Scardifield is the actor who gets to play Kate, the "shrew" of the title.
"It's not to do with authenticity, because that's how it was done then," he says of Propeller's all-male approach.
"There are two things really. It's partly because we have been a company for a while now and that's what we do. We stick together more than any other company. I've been with Propeller for six years, and it really helps us work together, it's a real plus.
"The other thing is that it does things to the audience. Clearly if you have men playing women it's not a documentary, it's a play. I think it brings out the child-like view, the person with imagination and fantasy.
"This is the third play in which I've done female characters. I played Hermione inThe Winter's Tale and I did five or six roles in Rose Rage, our Henry VI adaptation."
Was there a sense of crossing some kind of divide the first time he did it?
"The first time there was, yes, because I wasn't used to it. I was slightly scared – scared of playing a woman in front of women, scared it would look ridiculous, but almost everyone says that within ten minutes they forget, so I know that's how it works now.
"There's no wigs, no false breasts, only tiny, tiny make-up. We just work through character and text."
As to the supposed political incorrectness of the play, it hasn't caused the company any sleepless nights.
"We never really discussed it as a gender politics issue. Like all Shakespeare's plays, he wrote characters. He wasn't writing for the Daily Telegraph.
"There's a long speech near the end where Kate says a woman's role is to be subordinate to her husband. If you think it's Shakespeare's view, it's quite shocking. But you would no more turn to Kate for a balanced view of marriage than you would to Macbeth for a statement on the role of the monarchy in a liberal democracy.
"What she is not doing is putting over some kind of agenda. It's not that at all, it's one woman's view. It's seen as Shakespeare's final word to the audience before they leave the theatre, but that's misleading because the main bit of the play is a play-within-a- play."
This is the framing device of the drunken Christopher Sly who finds himself watching the play. Did Shakespeare originally return to this character at the end of the play? Propeller's production assumes that he did, and has restored the original final scene which is supposed lost.
"There's a very clear two-scene set-up of this thing. This character watches the play they put on, and at the end that is never picked up. It seems very strange that Shakespeare would forget it. There's a play called The Taming of a Shrew which is similar in lots of ways and in it the ending is taken up. People think it may have been written by someone who saw Shakespeare's original play. So we've plundered that.
"What we've done with that first setting-up of the story is to add something. The reason this man is drunk is he's about to get married. The bride's family argues with him, and he ends up watching and driving the play."
Like all Propeller's work The Shrew was created at the 220-seat Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire. Located in a tiny village just off the M4 it's hardly the Celtic fringe favoured by Kneehigh, but it's just as much off the beaten theatrical track.
"I think the stage there is probably no more than four metres square and we do shows with 12 actors," says Simon Scardifield. "It's produced a lot of really good work, like John Doyle's Sweeney Todd [the production which toured to Birmingham early this year, with Jason Donovan in the title role].
"There's a really friendly and supportive audience, and when you are used to performing with people that close to you it stands you in good stead when you travel to bigger spaces."
Scardifield, who graduated in modern languages from Cambridge, has a useful theatrical sideline in translating, having provided literal translations for David Hare's versions of The House of Bernardo Alba and and Patrick Marber's Don Juan.
The Taming of the Shrew will keep him busy for the next two years, including tours of Australia and Hong Kong. By the time it comes to its London run at the Old Vic the company will have added Twelfth Night to its travelling repertoire. In the past Scardifield has played Sebastian in this play for the RSC, and this time he'll be giving the dresses a rest to play Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Propeller presents The Taming of the Shrew at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from tomorrow until November 11 (Box office: 0870 609 1110).