The Theatreguide.London Review
Archive: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
For the archive we have put our reviews of several productions of The Taming Of The Shrew on one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
The most depressing sort of play for a veteran theatregoer is not the really lousy one - those have a special fascination of their own - but the one which some members of the audience are enjoying but you know could be, and should be, so very much better. You're happy that others are having a good time, but sad that they are being short-changed without even realising it.
So I will report that many in the less-than-half-full house at the Royal Shakespeare Company's current Shrew seemed to like it. But at every single minute I was painfully aware that almost every other production I've ever seen had done that minute better.
The play is inherently funny. In addition to the multiple romantic-comic situations, there are lots of jokes and funny lines, and most of them come through effectively. But neither director Gregory Doran nor his cast do much to help them along or add to them.
Part of the problem is a poorly-thought-out transfer from Stratford's Swan Theatre, with its very long thrust stage, to the shallow Queen's stage. Everyone is cramped together and flattened out, standing in a line facing front to shout their lines to the gallery, with far too little sense of interaction. And Stephen Brimson Lewis's far-too-busy set just clutters up the small stage even further.
Everyone onstage is a pro, so no one is terrible. But there's a low-energy, half-hearted quality to it all. The long plot stretches between the jokes are lifeless, and too many of the performers fall into that most amateur-theatre of traps, speaking their lines and then just turning off until their next cue, destroying any sense of reality.
And many of the characterisations suggest the unsure and half-thought-out experiments of early in the rehearsal process, not the product of a full summer's run in Stratford. The Lucentio can't decide from minute to minute how dim he's meant to be; the Bianca, how calculating; the Baptista, how desperate; the Gremio, how old.
Petruchio (Jasper Britton) enters as a staggering drunk in a Harpo Marx wig, and doesn't seem sure from that point on how broad a clown he wants to be. And while you can see the vague outlines of a characterisation in Alexandra Gilbreath's Kate, her performance is so bizarre that its extraneous flashes get in the way of its core.
Gilbreath enters looking more like a scullery maid than an heiress, with unkempt hair, red nose and flailing limbs. But when Britton's Petruchio comically woos her - and he wins her by making her laugh and by being the first man ever to actually say he wants her - we get a glimpse of a woman who desperately wants to be nothing more than a very ordinary happy housefrau.
So when his continued wildness takes even that away from her, she is doubly lost. Like many Kates, she seems to find the solution in the sun-moon scene late in the play, when she realises that it's all a joke to him, and she might as well join in the fun, but I've seen that revelation done far more believably and touchingly - and her final speech of submission has none of the irony that interpretation would require.
As I said at the start, I've seen everything in this play done better, not in one mythical production in the past, but in just about every other production. It's the RSC. It's hard (but not impossible) for them to actually be bad. And this isn't awful. It's just not very good.
Propeller, Old Vic Theatre Winter 2007
Edward Hall's all-male production of The Shrew is totally delightful through its first half, and then makes what is clearly a conscious and deliberate decision to go sour in the second half. The result is always interesting, but not always as much fun as you'd like it to be.
Director Hall plays the opening scenes for bright and bouncy comedy. All the characters are a little larger-than-life, all the action has a half-choreographed zing to it, all the costumes are brightly coloured - and the whole thing takes on some of the feel of an animated cartoon.
It's exactly right for the play, particularly the silly subplot, and creates a thoroughly happy mood.
Even more than in the Twelfth Night that plays with it in rep, the all-male casting works beautifully. Both Simon Scardifield as Kate and Jon Trenchard as Bianca are quickly accepted as women characters, without any hint of camp or drag acting. And the androgynous quality actually helps us focus on the characters and their emotions, without the distraction of gender.
And so, for all its lightness, the play can carry some emotional weight. In this vaguely modern dress design, Scardifield's Kate is the rebellious punk-rocker daughter and Bianca the daddy's-girl princess, and their interplay, and particularly Kate's unhappiness at the role she's stuck herself into, ring true.
She clearly falls for Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Petruchio because he's the first guy ever to treat her with anything remotely resembling respect and kindness, and some of the warm comic fun comes from her immediate softening.
He too proves a little more complex than he first seems, a bit of a football yob who is also quite a charmer and the smartest and fastest-thinking person onstage.
And then, at exactly the moment after their wedding when Petruchio says 'She is my goods, my chattel...', his charm disappears and Petruchio becomes - or reveals himself as - the ugliest sort of misogynist and wife-abuser.
Yes, the lines are all there in the text, though most modern productions choose to play them as a process of freeing Kate from the pattern of shrewishness and showing her how to be herself.
But Edward Hall will have none of that. The second half of the play is devoted to the systematic and unambiguous breaking of Kate's spirit through cruelty and nastiness - Petruchio even takes on the accent of one of the nastier characters out of The Sopranos - until her final big speech ('Thy husband is thy lord....') is the half-dead recitation of the broken and brainwashed.
In short, the second act in this production isn't much fun.
It's fascinating in a slightly macabre way, especially for those who know the play and need reminding that at least something of that element is there in the words on the page. But it is likely to be a shock and something of a comedown for anyone enjoying the comedy of the first act.
Bruce-Lockhart and especially Scardifield are first-rate, and the supporting cast all have fun with their somewhat easier all-comic roles, with Tony Bell's Tranio standing out with the ease and authority of the born comic actor.
RSC Novello Theatre February-March 2009
Conall Morrison's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is a broken-backed evening that starts off as a farcical romp and then quite deliberately turns very sour.
One could argue that Shakespeare's script does that, but other directors have found ways to make it all fit together more comfortably than here. So this is likely to be a Shrew more satisfying in parts than as a whole.
Morrison includes the frame Induction (which many productions cut) about the drunk who is conned into thinking he's a rich man, and setting it in modern dress is as harmless as it is pointless. The play proper begins on a high comic note, with elements of commedia dell'arte about it - exaggerated type characters and lots of choreographed stylised movement, exaggerated double-takes and the like.
Even Kate (Michelle Gomez) is introduced as a broad comic figure. I've seen her meeting with Petruchio (Stephen Boxer) played better than it is here, but the tone remains light and the staging inventive.
And throughout the play the secondary action remains on that farcical level, from the interplay of Patrick Moy's Lucentio and Keir Charles's Tranio, though the attempts at disguise, to the discovery that Amara Karan's Bianca is a bit more sexually adventurous than a modest Padua virgin might be expected to be. Even the very minor roles of Biondello (Jack Laskey) and the Pedant (Larrington Walker) are allowed their broad comic moments.
But from the moment Petruchio marries Kate, their part of the play is dark and unpleasant, and if the process of taming her doesn't quite break her spirit, it clearly makes her choose to turn off emotionally as a survival mechanism.
The most chilling moment in the whole play comes at the last 'Kiss me, Kate,' as Petruchio gropes and manhandles her and she just stands stiffly, waiting for him to finish.
It is possible to interpret the play darkly, though it's not my favourite reading. But then you would expect the whole evening to support that tone. And it may be that director Morrison wanted the clash in tones to increase the shock value. But the price - a play that goes in a different emotional direction with each scene - turns out to be too much.
If you like the dark sequences more than I do, then the rest of the play will keep annoying you with its irrelevant trivia. If you like the comedy, then the ugly moments will seem out of place. And if you are willing to have both, then you'll wish that they had been better integrated - or at least made to seem part of the same play - than they are here.
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Reviews - Taming of the Shrew - 2004-2009