Directing Kiss Me, Kate is to direct two shows at the same time. The first – the backstage romance of ex-husband and wife acting team, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi. The second – ‘The Shrew!’ a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ opening for the first time in Baltimore.
The constant shift and movement between these two worlds is only part of the challenge. What’s remarkable about Kiss Me, Kate is how layered the text is and how much the two worlds parallel and inform each other. Similarities between the onstage relationship of Katharine and Petruchio played by Lilli and Fred, reveal as much about their character as their backstage scenes. Constantly shifting between onstage and off, we see how cleverly these two can taunt and tease each other and how their fiery artistic tempers are, in fact, perfectly married.
Designing these two separate worlds was a big task. How to skip swiftly between an American interpretation of a period Shakespearean play and backstage at the Ford Theatre in Baltimore in the 1940’s? Working with designer Colin Richmond we realised pretty quickly that the problem to solve was not simply how to move from one world to the other, but actually, how to maintain the sense that these two worlds were constantly running at the same time. That from the moment ‘The Shrew’ opens it’s playing in real-time against the rest of the chaos you’re witnessing backstage. So it really does feel like you’re designing and directing two pieces.
Directorially, this means not just directing a musical, but also handling many scenes in Shakespearean verse. It requires performers with a consummate set of skills; performers equally at home with the challenges of iambic pentameter and verse speaking as they are singing and dancing. We’ve been fortunate in our choices of Jeni Bern as Lilli Vanessi and Quirijn de Lang as Fred. As opera singers neither had ever approached or played Shakespeare before, but they have an instinctive dramatic curiosity for it and have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the new challenge of mastering verse.
Alongside this, there’s also a huge dance element to the show. Numbers like ‘Too darn hot’ which opens Act Two and ‘Another op’nin’, another show’ have pages of music where it just says ‘dance’. The music is fantastic – fast, fun and jazzy – classic Cole Porter in its sound, which requires some high impact choreography to go with it. Will Tuckett, the choreographer and I have worked very closely to ensure that as well as some breathtaking dancing, each dance moves the narrative along, so they feel essential to our story.
Another Op’nin’ is unquestionably the most challenging number I have ever put on the stage. Opening the show and introducing us to all the backstage characters involved in putting on a production – each with their own individual tasks and idiosyncratic energies. It’s an incredibly busy and exciting start to the evening, and a wonderful insight on just how many talented and committed people it takes to put on a show.
WNO’s Kiss Me, Kate opens at Wales Millennium Centre on 29 September, returning to the Centre for further performances between 6-10 December. WNO’s UK tour also visits Venue Cymru, Llandudno where Kiss Me Kate will be performed between 24-26 November. For more information, visit wno.org.uk