Jo Clifford holds up a framed photograph of the little boy she used to be. The boy is dressed in a scratchy grey suit and tie, and, standing in the Worcestershire countryside, has a pet dog with him. On the face of it, the picture is an all too familiar if accidental depiction of a buttoned-up 1950s world in which little boys and girls became trapped by other people’s ideas of who or what they were.
Close by on Clifford’s desk sits a personalised gift to the playwright from actress Paula Wilcox, who played Miss Havisham in the west end production of Great Expectations, Clifford’s stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel. In different ways, both artefacts are crucial to Clifford’s brand new reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew, which arrives at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow this week after opening at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. This goes back to Clifford’s first professional writing job, adapting another Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, for young people.
It was the success of that production that led to the then John Clifford being asked to do something similar with The Taming of the Shrew. When Clifford re-read the play, however, she was shocked by what she found.
“I just thought it was appalling,” she says. “I thought it was a disgusting play. It was full of bullying. It was full of sexism. It was a shockingly brutal defence of patriarchy, and I couldn’t do it, so I turned the commission down.”
The play Clifford eventually wrote was her version of Great Expectations, which toured to Iraq, Egypt, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh prior to numerous revivals, including the one featuring Wilcox as Miss Havisham.
While Clifford’s rejection of The Taming of the Shrew was a blessing in disguise, by her own admission, when the Sherman’s then artistic director Rachel O’Riordan approached her with the idea of looking at the play again, “There was a bit of unfinished business. So, I re-read it again, and I thought, you can’t do this play straight these days. It’s not on. It’s impossible. Immoral, actually.”
Given how much things had changed since she last read the play thirty years ago, not least of which her transition from a man to a woman, rather than reject the idea as she had done before, Clifford opted to turn the play upside down.
“I’ve always been concerned with the imbalance of roles between men and women,” she says, “so I thought, what happens if you swap it round? But I didn’t want women to play the men’s parts and men to be playing women’s parts. I wanted Petruchio to be a woman, and so on. I suppose I wanted that because, in a weird kind of way, it’s a reflection of my experience as someone who used to live as a man and now lives as a woman, and this version couldn’t have happened without that. To do a queer version of The Taming of the Shrew seemed to me to make a lot of sense, so that’s what I did.
“And what’s happened, of course, as soon as you imagine the play happening in a matriarchal time, where women have the power, suddenly the whole thing transforms in a remarkable way. So Kate is a boy who is in trouble because he won’t submit and settle down and do his sewing or allow himself to be married off. Male characters like Lucentio and Petruchio are independent women fearlessly travelling the world, empowered to take command of their own lives, and to do exactly the kinds of things that male characters in Shakespeare have done all our lives.
“Seeing women doing that, wow, it’s remarkable. There’s still a real thrill in seeing that. The power politics of the play, which are so depressing in a normal, straight version of the play, become subversive and interesting and enlightening and exciting. Bianca, for instance, is a boy who thinks and has no doubt that women are superior to men and men are the weaker sex, and what he wants to do is to find a nice woman that he can make happy, and it’s kind of extraordinary. Suddenly, forms of oppression that we are so used to in our society that we don’t notice them, suddenly become visible in a way that is very surprising.”
Clifford’s experience living as a woman has fed into the play.
“The fact that I’m trans has totally informed the play,” she says. “My experience is in every line, even though it’s not about trans issues at all. It’s about hetero-normativity if you like, except, of course, that the women in the play are totally unashamed of their sexuality and are all having affairs with each other, but that’s not really what the play is about. That’s just the way life is.
“This is a play about joy, I hope, because even though these issues are charged with anger at the moment, and with a sense of betrayal, distress and very very deep pain, I didn’t want to add to that pain. I wanted something that would look at it, but at the same time could be funny and joyful and subversive.
“What the play is saying is that human beings are human beings, and we have to have the right to develop according to our own deep desires and our own identities, and to try to affirm that men have to behave in such a way and that women have to behave in another way is completely absurd and damaging and wrong. And I hope it undermines in a playful kind of way all the usual proscription of gender.”
And what might the little boy in the photograph on Clifford’s desk think if he saw her version of The Taming of the Shrew today?
“I hope," says Clifford, "that if that little boy had seen this play, or known that it existed, or known that I existed, he would’ve taken comfort and strength and would’ve known that he was alright. Because I had an overwhelming sense that in a very deep and frightening level that I was not alright, and that there was no future for me really beyond trying to hide who I was and trying to pretend to be normal.
“I would love that little boy to know that wasn’t true, and the most incredible future was there for him, which I have somehow miraculously manged to make happen. So I hope he would’ve been spared a lot of massive unhappiness, and I hope as he grew up he would’ve been able to wear drag and really enjoy it all the time and who knows where that would’ve led him, the dear boy.”
Clifford looks at her former self once more.
“I haven’t put the picture away,” she says, “because I’m actually very proud of him. He had a hard time of it, and did very well.”
The Taming of the Shrew, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 20-30.