Comedy, Festivals

Gillian English on 10 Things I Hate About You and rethinking Shakespeare’s legacy

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It’s been just over 20 years to the day since the much-loved teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You, featuring Heath Ledger’s star-making turn as a charismatic, roguish heartthrob, first hit cinemas.

Based on The Taming of the Shrew, the 1999 film was one of a slew of Shakespeare adaptations of that era, such as Baz Luhrmann’s neon-hued Romeo and Juliet, Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man and Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed.

But to many people, 10 Things I Hate About You has always seemed a cut above. It features a fiery, feminist lead (Julia Stiles)  the rare romcom outcast who doesn’t get a makeover and a particularly clever screenplay many Millennial women I know can still quote verbatim. Last week The New York Times celebrated the film’s anniversary with an oral history, describing its “continued relevance”.

Though mostly irreverent, the film also paid deference to its original source material, Shakespeare’s story of a “tempestuous” woman and the man who tames her. There are Shakespeare references sprinkled throughout the movie, with characters breaking into lines like “I burn, I pine, I perish!”

What better time, then, for Hobart-based, Canadian comedian and actress Gillian English to take the film  and all those Bard-worshiping adaptations  to task?

English, who has a Master’s degree in classical Shakespearean performance from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, wants us all to rethink our obsession with the famed playwright (he is, after all, a “dead white guy”, as a character notes in 10 Things).

“I would say about half his stuff is just garbage,” says English, who adds that she once sparked ire in an audition for calling Romeo and Juliet a “stupid play”.

“Some of it’s great, but they weren’t all gems,” she says. “And I think it’s depressing and ridiculous to idolise someone to the point where you don’t think there’s even the ability to criticise their work.”

In her new Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew, English skewers our relationship with Shakespeare, as well as our tendency to lionise works of art created by men.

It’s a subject she explored previously in SHE WOLF, a critique of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Queen Margaret of Anjou.

Her new show is “feminist and angry,” she says. “It’s really high energy. It’s a lot of fun. Nobody really gets hurt, unless you have a delicate male ego.”

She lists the 10 things she hates about Taming of the Shrew in the context of personal anecdotes about her life, as well as public’s association with stories that would now be considered problematic (like the fact that Juliet was only 13).

“I’m just looking at why our society continues to tell the same stories over and over again, even when their ethics and morals no longer apply to the society in which we live,” she says.

That also applies to all those Shakespeare adaptations.

“These stories come from very questionable source material,” English says. “The main thrust of Taming of the Shrew is that women are terrible and you can beat them into submission. There’s no other great moral in there. And that’s the source material for everybody’s favourite movie from the 90s.”

Though English concedes that 10 Things I Hate About You does make some significant updates to the story, including the introduction of feminist themes, she says it still has problematic elements. She takes issue with one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, where Ledger (as Patrick Verona) serenades Stiles’ character to Frankie Valli’s I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.

“That’s not about how much he likes her. That’s very performative. It’s about him. That’s narcissistic,” English says. “And you wouldn’t be getting a prom dress, you’d be getting a restraining order.”

But before you summon up a vehement defence of Shakespeare, or your problematic romcom fave, English says she’s not asking you to give up the stories you love.

“It’s something I talk about in the show,” she says. “You can love things you know are problematic, as long as you know.”

10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew is on at the Malthouse until April 21.

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