Kissing Kate at the Watermill

An interview by Mel Cooper with the director Paul Hart about his new production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate opening at the Watermill Theatre near Newbury at the end of July 2019.

Paul Hart is entering his fifth year as the artistic director of the magical Watermill Theatre situated a bit remotely near Newbury in deepest West Berkshire. This idyllically situated 220 seat theatre was founded about fifty years ago and is at the centre of some of the most innovative and influential productions of our times. Everything about it is unexpected. It punches, as they say, above its weight. 

Paul had a strong relationship with the theatre already, having worked with Ed Hall and his excellent Propeller Company there and then through directing some shows at the Watermill as a freelancer even before he was appointed to take over. He is not only an exciting, intelligent and utterly committed artistic director for this place but also one of its strongest talents as a director.

When we spoke, Paul was rehearsing his new version of Cole Porter’s classic musical Kiss Me, Kate. In that show the play within the play is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the context is given by a story about the backstage shenanigans happening during a performance of Shakespeare’s comedy. As with Paul’s very successful version of Sweet Charity last year, this production will be small scale by the standards of a Broadway show of the late 1940s and every performer will not only sing, dance and act but play an instrument, creating their own onstage band. That is the Watermill’s increasingly famous house style for approaching classic musicals.

The Watermill approach to putting on a musical made a huge impact in London and New York several years and the Watermill musical is a much-anticipated event these days. Paul is very excited about continuing this non-traditional, pared down approach to great music theatre pieces. We spoke about it at length when he was having a break from rehearsals.

Paul told me that he was extremely interested in the progression of musicals at the Watermill, how the new approach to the form can be worked, explored and developed. 

“We are, as a theatre, looking for a new challenge, especially in this genre, every year,” he asserted. “We always ask ourselves each time, ‘How can we approach musicals in a way that no one else has ever done before?’ This is especially important with well-known titles like Kiss Me, Kate. People have seen earlier productions on stage or even the MGM movie and they have that in their head. So you don’t want to repeat those approaches. You need to come up with something fresh, something that will make people see it in a new way. You need to do more than just another version.”

Paul agreed that the Watermill approach depends upon a particular style this theatre has worked to develop and that this approach wouldn’t work for every musical. They have to be very careful about their choices. “When it does work, however,” he said, “it tends to give each piece a new lease of life. I really had to think hard about approaching Kiss Me, Kate – it’s a brilliant musical and contains some of the best and most famous Broadway songs ever written. How can we make it speak with relevance to an audience today? I happen to love Cole Porter. He writes the best music and the most catchy and memorable lyrics; and when you have such good music in that kind of version and you take our approach, I believe it gives the whole creation a freshness.”

Since Paul said not every musical can work when you apply what is now, without a doubt, the house style for musicals of the Watermill, I asked him to tell me what made it feasible to do Kiss Me, Kate in this way.  

Kiss Me, Kate is a good one to do in this style because it’s about a troupe of players telling a story – The Taming of the Shrew, in this instance – and so it makes sense to make them have instruments. Maybe they are a rackety troupe. They are certainly strolling players.”

I asked Paul how the rehearsals were going as far as he was concerned and how he felt about his choice for this year’s summer musical as a candidate for the non-extravaganza treatment.  

“I’m enjoying directing Kiss Me, Kate more than any show so far. I think that’s because of the theatricality at the heart of the peace. Something about doing this musical is more satisfying when done with actor-musicians. I hope that seeing the way we do it and hearing our new orchestrations will be a joy to people who know the piece. For those who are new to the piece, I hope it will makes sense as an illuminating way of approaching it.” 

I asked him how he was feeling about the mixture of elements in this show: a contemporary backstage story mixed with actually performing a lot of the original Shakespeare play, and a score that cheekily mixes several genres. 

“ Well, to start with I love doing the Shakespeare bits. I’ve done lots of Shakespeare recently and to combine the two genres, musical comedy and Shakespearean social comedy, really is very special and great fun. The whole cast is having a terrific time! Also, this musical seems to me to be a great way to approach an interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew by having songs written into it, several of which actually set some of the lines of Shakespeare. I think that people who are wary of Shakespeare would find this a good way in to experiencing him. It’s a real joy priming a group of actors who can not only sing and dance and play instruments and yet play the Shakespeare very convincingly as well. I also love it that the arguments on stage in both the surrounding story and the play they are presenting somehow makes us all complicit as an audience. It’s a delightful challenge, having to get scenes right presented by the actors on stage and then showing how they connect with the backstage story. It gives The Taming of the Shrew itself new layers and a kind of contemporary relevance in the way it echoes the stories of the actors backstage who are also playing the main roles on stage.”

Paul pointed out that for the backstage story they have gone for setting it in the period of the original production. The show opened in 1948, was Cole Porter’s biggest Broadway hit ever, played for over 1000 performances and won the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical. 

“For me in terms of the style of music of the show,” he continued, “to have it existing in a believable way for the audience, you have to set the show in its original context. If you were doing Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore in the forties, as this group of actors is doing, you have to ask yourself what would it look like and sound like, and so forth.  That point in American history is relevant to the social context: American was coming out of two world wars and the Depression. Soldiers were just returning home from fighting.  Couples were having to get together again and build new lives after long separations. You have to consider how that impacts on the world around the piece. For me all that feels significant! It’s an important part of the world we’re creating by doing this show.”

Paul’s casting in one way also reflects the history of musicals at the Watermill since the early part of the 21st century.

“David Ricardo-Pearce is playing Fred and Petruchio. He was last at Watermill in our production of Sweeney Todd. That show went on to the West End and then  New York. This is David’s first time back with us since then. He played the young, handsome Antony, the juvenile lead, in Sweeney Todd and this time he’s the rugged and more experienced Petruchio. He has to tie up the character of Petruchio with that of the actor-director Fred. He is perfect casting for this part! And he understands the kind of musicianship we exploit in our productions. We are also very lucky in out female lead. Rebecca Trehearn is playing Lily and Katherine and in my opinion she was born to play that role. It’s so effortless for her, in her ability to sing some of the hardest stuff ever written for Broadway and yet she can be very gutsy. The part was originally conceived by Cole Porter for Patricia Morrison who was opera trained, I believe and who, like Lily Vanessi, was having a slump in her film career. But it’s dangerous to play into and focus on the operetta nature in the piece, so we stripped it back a bit musically. Rebecca can sing that stuff and can compete with anyone who ever played this role. Also she has picked up and dusted off her clarinet telling me it’s about eight years since she last played it.” 

I remarked to Paul that I had seen his production of Sweet Charity last year and that I was very impressed by the unique way the musical worked in the Watermill style. 

“This time we want to highlight the great variety of approaches that Cole Porter and his team incorporated. “Too Darn Hot” is very famous as a song. At first looking at Baltimore in Forties we decided it was representative of the sort of world musically that was happening at that time in the States. There was an influx of jazz with the returning soldiers. It fascinates me that on the streets of Baltimore, there was a clash of sounds and styles happening and that affects what we do on stage as well. It’s a time when the world outside was changing radically after World War II and when people also had to recover from the traumas of that war and try to find and reassert a kind of joy in life again. I’m fascinated to see where we can bring a bit of that mix of things into our story telling. Kiss Me, Kate is usually played as a comfortable romantic comedy but it’s not really that underneath the surface. For instance, you have to deal with the approach to misogyny in the piece – both the surrounding story and the Shakespeare play —  and also with the gangsters. There are aspects of this musical that present you with an image of a threat in the society and that can even be interpreted as retrograde. My aim is to draw all that out and see how it affects the day-to-day onstage world of the theatre that we are showing. Things are changing fast and it’s clear that Lily won’t be a movie star much longer so she has had to return to the stage a bit reluctantly to save her reputation; and Fred’s also, it seems to me, caught at a moment when he is on a downward trajectory. So they both need a hit! Both are a bit desperate. And the audience can sense that desperation and stress, so the audience gets behind the actors.”

Paul went on to emphasise that the show has a strong theme about misogyny. “Considering current discussions about how society treats women, there is that interesting point at the end of the piece turning on how acceptable it may or may not be to have a husband demanding of his wife that she behave in a particular way to support his ego in front of everyone they know. This makes for discomfort for a contemporary audience.  And yet Fred and Lily are also a real romance. They bicker and fight and hurt each other, but they also understand each other in ways no one else does. It’s even a potentially violent relationship in some ways, I feel. I haven’t seen any of that explored so much in other productions. Also the text of the contemporary part of the show allows Lily to have the upper hand as much as Fred does. There are moments when she takes control of him and what is going on and vice versa. It’s quite painful at the end when in both the surrounding play and the Shakespeare play she’s put into a position where she’s losing control. I want the audience to come out angry and affected by that rather than not address that major issue at the end of the piece. The backstage relationships come alive retroactively in a different way when you present that finale. For me the point about that moment in the play is to see the level of manipulation that has been put in place in order for Lily to have to say that speech. She has got to have been undermined to be put in that situation and she’s angry underneath it. Audiences today are more aligned than ever to what it all means. I’m convinced that Shakespeare was completely aware at that point of what he was doing and the ambiguities of his story. In this day and age it’s more apparent and more effective in the way it divides an audience.”

Paul went on to talk a bit about the second love story in the show. 

“The thing with the other major relationship is that they’re approaching it from the other side of the coin. He’s a hoofer, they’ve played clubs. They’ve never had a real chance in legitimate theatre before. The writers, Sam and Bella Spewack, play into the idea that there’s an edge to the backstage world with gambling and those gangsters that turn up looking for the money for an IOU. We know the girl has slept her way to this point and she’s very flirtatious with Fred, so there’s that dynamic of the world we’re in. The gangsters are intricately connected to that world and are there in order to find Bill and get their money. These characters add to the sense that things backstage are not quite right, that nothing is safe in terms of how people live backstage. I’m impressed by what a clever device it is to have set that up and let the audience be a part of it in order to see how it all plays out. Exploring Kiss Me, Kate with a production that goes as far as possible with danger is very exciting. But above all I enjoy the brilliant mixing of different musical genres.” 

In the end, Paul averred, Kiss Me, Kate is best seen as a terrific version and interpretation of the original play, The Taming of the Shrew. “The Spewacks are really good at storytelling as is Cole Porter with the music and lyrics. The Shakespeare may be cut down but it’s a very real version of the original play and the whole makes real sense of all the themes and the social issues. This is a really good, classic musical and it has great charm. Everything in the way the show is put together works. It’s written incredibly well and is tight in its construction. It’s also a fun and playful version of a Shakespeare play that has a real sucker punch at the end of it.”

Kiss Me, Kate is opening on Thursday, 25 July 2019 and playing at the Watermill Theatre until Saturday, 21 September. Personally I believe that it is going to be another hit for this unique company. I recommend that you also turn up early to enjoy the idyllic setting and also, perhaps, try their fine restaurant.