MAY 2008  
  < BACK  

Only recently, at a learned Shakespeare conference, an eminent editor of The Taming of the Shrew announced in no uncertain terms that she, for one, would be happy for there never to be another production of this "tasteless and despicable play." The RSC at Stratford, apparently unaware of such scholarly animosity, have embraced this 'troublesome' play, transforming it into an evening of bawdy comedy and raucous good humour. Connall Morrison has injected this early Shakespearean play with a shot of pantomimic fun; under his direction, characters bounce and sing, simulate sexual delight, and don a multitude of fantastical disguises, all to please the Courtyard audience. And pleased we jolly well were.

As for the supposed (or real) misogynism of the piece, don't go to Stratford for politically-correct reinterpretations of this early modern immorality tale. When Katherina, who has scolded enough men in her time, eventually scolds those newly-wedded wives who have readily disobeyed their husbands, she does so with none of the bitter irony of so many late-twentieth-century productions. Katherina's is a straightforward expression of that duty which any man in 1590s London would, if not expect, at least hope he might receive from his lawfully-wedded wife. Of course we know that this catalogue of self-debasement is a male fantasy; how much more ironic to hear Katherina express this fantasy with sincere and loving determination. The men who trundled home from the Curtain, Shakespeare's 1590s playhouse in Shoreditch close by the modern-day artistic enclave known as Hoxton, had, for a few hours at least, been in the company of one Petruchio, a man who could tame his shrewish wife. Reality would no doubt then beckon, which begs the question, "Who was fooling whom?"

So, the politics aside, what makes this production such a delight? Francis O'Connor's set design makes full use of the Courtyard, turning this vast cavern into as intimate a space as the best Swan Theatre venture. A huge tower pirouettes onstage, sometimes presenting a Soho sex-shop street scene, sometimes a rich merchant's house in uptown Padua. Huge architectural models, the sort that Christopher Wren constructed out of wood when designing St Paul's Cathedral, are wheeled onstage and magically transform into feasting tables and tiered wedding cakes. In a particularly effective coup de theatre , the players announced in the Induction cascade out of a huge reversing truck, tumbling and prancing and practising their lines just as the public expects they do on a daily basis. This is high camp which is clear, comedic, and utterly enchanting.

Naturally, the Induction causes as many problems for this production as it does for those Shakespeare scholars and Folio aficionados who cannot contemplate that the 1623 text might be 'incomplete'. The existence of that far earlier alternative play, The Taming of A Shrew, published in 1594 and providing a full and fitting narrative for Christopher Sly from beginning to bitter end, has often grudgingly been acknowledged and even more grudgingly integrated into productions as far back as the 1840s. No mention of A Shrew in this production; instead, the players pile back into their touring truck, leaving a near-naked Christopher Sly, who interestingly has doubled Petruchio, to wallow in his misfortune on the cold Warwickshire flag-stoned street.

Stephen Boxer is magnificent as Petruchio. A perfect blend of anti-hero and romantic lead coupled with manic megalomania and a thirst for money and power. Boxer's performance breathes life and passion into this difficult character. Petruchio has, however, to confront the full fury of his shrewish 'Kate'. Michelle Gomez commands the stage, her comic timing and fiery sexuality juxtaposed with her femininity and vulnerability when faced with a man for whom she truly can feel affection. Gomez's performance soars in its majestic power. Whether battling against those ineffectual suitors to her lovely younger sister or raging at the man whose contrariness is so infuriatingly similar to her own, Gomez embraces the character and makes it truly her own. There is fire in this Katherina's eyes, fire in her blood, and fire in her soul. Joan of Arc meets Lady Macbeth. The men around her cannot help but be well and truly scorched.

The entire company match the skill of the two principal actors. Whether a star-crossed lover whose absurd posturing leads to the funniest onstage bonking in theatrical history, or a flustered father apparently oblivious to his daughter indulging in mock masturbation behind his back, or even a disguised servant ludicrously engaging a passing Rastafarian merchant to pretend to be his long-lost father, all create a comic whole which holds the audience spell-bound for over three hours. A truly magnificent ensemble of actors, a truly innovative production, and a truly original take on this fascinating play. 'Tasteless', 'despicable'? You bet your life. More please!

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008