What is it about Shakespeare that makes a group of teenagers and young adults - a number of whom have been sitting exams - give up what little free time they've had to rehearse for his 1593 play The Taming of The Shrew?

Words like crack-hemp, according to Hannah Shunk-Hockings, Caleb Wells and Amie Bentall - and the fact they get to fling insults like this around a stage while partaking in one of their favourite activities: acting for theatre.

Sitting in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Auckland Performing Arts Centre (Tapac) in Western Springs, surrounded by a pile of 1980s punk and goth costumes, the three talk enthusiastically about the inaugural production of the Young Auckland Shakespeare Company.

The company was formed this year, driven by actor, writer and drama tutor Rita Stone, who is passionate about Shakespeare and providing opportunities for young people to make theatre. Stone has recruited 19 of the company's students, aged 14-21, for The Taming of the Shrew. Since auditions in September, they have rehearsed twice a week under the watchful eyes of Stone and tutors, former Shortland Street regular Nisha Madhan and Lara Fischel-Chisholm.


For a number of the cast, joining the YASC has been something of a natural progression from taking part in the lauded University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festivals run by Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand in secondary schools. Shunk-Hockings and Sally Bollinger, who plays the lead, were among 24 students who travelled to the Globe Theatre in London.

Wells narrowly missed out on a place after doing well at the Auckland regional section of the competition where he put his own spin on Julius Caesar by adding zombies in the final scene. "You've got to love a playwright whose work you can do that with," he says.

Wells, Shunk-Hockings and Bentall can't get enough of the Bard. They love the sound of Shakespeare's language, the chance to portray his richly drawn characters and to ponder how far we have moved along - or not - since Shakespearean times. The Taming of the Shrew may be more than 500 years old, but the so-called battle of the sexes is still just as much an issue today as when Shakespeare was writing about gender equity.

The YASC version of The Taming of the Shrew does things a little differently, though. Stone was watching Silo Theatre's Top Girls earlier this year when she decided it would be interesting to emphasise the conditions which might create a so-called shrew. Set in the 1980s, Caryl Churchill's Top Girls looks at whether modern women can "have it all" and reaches the bleak conclusion that professional success comes at a high personal cost - if not to the woman, then to those most vulnerable around her.

"I knew I wanted to do a comedy and I was absolutely adamant that if we were a company of young people, it should be presented as a young person's play and no one should have lines drawn across their forehead to look like wrinkles."

So Stone has set The Taming of the Shrew in the 1980s, saying the androgynous clothes, the music and the nascent technological changes are an ideal backdrop to consider the changing definition of women's and men's roles. But the play is also a comedy and Stone acknowledges there's something inherently amusing about the fashions of the 80s and the ways different social "tribes" developed. For their part, Wells (17), Shunk-Hockings (17) and Bentall (21) love the clothes - and the soundtrack, which plays a pivotal part in this production and includes Cyndi Lauper, Spandau Ballet, Eurythmics, Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler.

Stone's approach has necessitated altering the gender of certain characters. Rather than being a gentleman of Padua, Baptista Minola (Bentall) is transformed into a solo mother of two complicated daughters who juggles a successful career with keeping her girls on the straight and narrow. Is it watching her mother try to cope with all life throws at her that makes Baptista's youngest daughter, Katharine (Sally Bollinger), a shrew?

Wells plays Petruchio, who sets out to woo Katharine; his servant Grumio (Shunk-Hockings) in this production, isn't a man, but a love-struck schoolgirl who follows Petruchio around. "I thought it would be interesting to play with the gender of certain characters and see what comes out of it," says Stone.

But she has drawn the line at altering Shakespeare's verse - much to the relief of the cast, who say they might have missed out on learning what words like crack-hemp mean and, better still, knowing how to use them. Bentall, the oldest member of the cast, is in her second year of study at the University of Auckland and says being part of the YASC has been invaluable in helping with her studies.

"Through performing and hearing the words and discussing what they mean and their context, I think back on what I've read and realise, 'ah, that's what that meant.' There's no substitute for performing these plays, for actually doing them."

Stone couldn't agree more. "I think Shakespeare should be taught by drama teachers so you're not blowing the dust off the texts then reading them quietly but running around, performing and showing how he wrote about the human condition and how there are universal themes in his work. These are keys to developing an awareness of what it means to be human and are just as relevant today as they were when he was writing and, not only that, you expand the understanding of language and expression."

What: The Taming of the Shrew
Where & when: Tapac, December 5-8