Michael Fentiman is currently directing an RSC First Encounter production of The Taming of the Shrew, with the male and female roles reversed. Aimed at 8-13 year olds, the production will open in February at  The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before embarking on a six week tour of UK schools and regional theatres, then travelling to the US to play at The Ohio State University.  Freya Smith caught up with Fentiman to find out more.

How did you get into directing?
Initially, I trained as an actor and went to Bretton Hall for three years. We did all of our training by a practical approach. We learnt a lot about different kinds of theatre and how you make theatre, which inspired me to set up a theatre company while I was there. I directed a play and then just sort of fell into directing. I didn’t have the financial support to work on the Fringe, so I did a host of jobs: directing pantomimes, shows on cruise ships, professional wrestling, as well as doing plays and tours. After about two or three years I thought I should train so studied the one year postgraduate directing course at Mountview, and I’ve been directing pretty much non stop since then!

You’ve done a lot of work with the RSC. Were you always drawn to Shakespeare?
When I was at school I didn’t really like Shakespeare; I found it quite boring. When I first started directing I probably felt more that I should direct a Shakespeare play than I necessarily wanted to. I was a little bit scared, as I’d assumed that directing Shakespeare was for people smarter than I am. I’d stuck to new plays, which of course you need to be equally as clever for. I’d directed two Steven Berkoff plays: East and Messiah. In East I kept finding lots of brilliant phrases, and I really loved the language. I realised that a lot of this language was taken from Shakespeare plays, which made me think I could direct one.

How did you begin working with the RSC?
When I finished at Mountview my mentor recommended working with Michael Boyd at the RSC. After about nine rounds of interviews, I became part of the long ensemble. At the time, I didn’t really know what it meant – I just knew the RSC was very important! I assisted Michael Boyd and Rupert Goold. Now whenever I come back I can’t imagine starting out anywhere else; it feels very much like a family.

What excites you about First Encounter and performing Shakespeare in schools?
I’m excited about giving young people the opportunity to see it live. The texts weren’t designed to be sat down and read, they were designed to be performed and heard. I’m excited about young people seeing Shakespeare of this standard: we’re touring in schools with a cast of nine, a musician and a full set, all supported by the RSC. It’s quite a significant touring schools project; not a lot of companies could afford to go into schools at this scale.

You’re directing a gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew. Where did that idea come from, and what motivated it?
With The Taming of the Shrew, Greg [Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC] came to me and said, we’re looking to do a season of work featuring strong female protagonists – e.g. The Roaring Girl and The White Devil, which are written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Greg wanted to carry that thrust into the touring Shakespeare work. He came up with The Taming of the Shrew and reversing genders which really excited me; we’re doing a gender swap in a production that’s normally seen as a comment on gender. I took it further and said I wanted the female characters to be played by men in Elizabethan dress but with skinheads and beards, and that they shouldn’t attempt to act like women. So straight away you go, we’ve swapped the costumes and now we play the roles; we’re not trying to comment on how women or men behave.

Playing to young people, we carry a responsibility with what kind of production we bring. We wouldn’t want something which glorified the idea of making a woman submit to a man, but we also wouldn’t want to watch a play where a woman accepts that that’s the case. What we feel we’re doing is looking less at a man and a woman than two people fighting their way into a relationship.

How have you made The Taming of the Shrew accessible to a young audience?
I’m not really worried about making it accessible, because when you do that you try to make the language “cool”, you put people in “cool” clothes. But the truth is, people have imaginations – they can make the imaginative leap and make the things being said relatable to their own lives.

What advice do you have for young directors?
Go to see lots of other people’s work. Go to see work you disagree with, because often your work is informed by what you don’t like, as well as what you do. Always have a classic revival and at least two new plays sitting in your back pocket at any one time. Assist people that are at the top of their game, but in assisting them, don’t lose a sense of your own voice. As a young director, you assume that because you’re inexperienced, you’re almost always in the wrong, and the truth is that your first instinct is probably always right, regardless of your experience. You then learn to make that instinct practical. Trust in your own instincts even when listening to wonderful advice; you can only be yourself.

To find out more about Michael Fentiman’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, visit the RSC education team’s website.