Saturday, 4 February 2012

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC / RST & tour)

The last time the RSC tried their hand at a bit of shrew-taming, they went for a literal approach that didn't sugarcoat the misogyny in Shakespeare's play. Which is all very powerful and thought-provoking, but unless you're an actual misogynist it's also rather unpleasant. Lucy Bailey's The Taming of the Shrew is a much less brutal, more ambiguous telling of the story that tries to find the soulmates in Petruchio and Katherina, but remains problematic.

Proving once again that the deep thrust stage doesn't mean you can't have interesting sets, Ruth Sutcliffe turns the whole diving board into a giant bed. Bailey has not only included the induction scene but embraced it, and it's Christopher Sly, under the misapprehension that he's a lord, who's tucked up under the covers watching the play-within-a-play. Casting Nick Holder, an actor who's never been afraid to make himself look grotesque, as Sly, sets the tone for a scatological production, and Holder frequently pops up to steal the show in literally shameless fashion. Despite the 1940s Italian setting, Lisa Dillon's Katherina is entirely a modern-day ladette, constantly drunk, chain-smoking, spitting, vomiting and pissing on the stage. So her Petruchio matches her, his inappropriate wedding attire here consisting of him turning up topless and covered in marker pen, as if fresh from the stag do. Although, since he's played by David Caves, the production like the poster image is basically a series of excuses to get him to take his shirt off anyway.

Because I actually am that shallow, my main reason for braving Stratford (and the snow, as it turns out) for one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays is the presence of Big Favourite Round These Parts, Sam Swainsbury as Hortensio and for me the Bianca subplot was the strongest part of the play. Swainsbury's fussy Hortensio, Gavin Fowler's hyperactive Lucentio and David Rintoul's comb-overed Gremio fight amusingly over a Bianca that Elizabeth Cadwallader gives some spirit and mischief to; and a scene involving people getting revealed behind window shutters is the show's funniest setpiece. The sub-subplot about the real and fake Lucentios and Vincentios on the other hand can go die in a fire.

Bailey hasn't gone as far as the recent Southwark Playhouse production in making the shrew complicit with her own taming, so even though the uncomfortable fact that Petruchio is essentially torturing her is played down, the idea that Katherina is genuinely in love with him by the end remains problematic. There were times, especially after the interval, when I felt that proceedings were really dragging - I thought maybe I was distracted by worrying about my train journey home in the snow, but the hefty running time suggests it wasn't my imagination. At times the comedy really hits the mark, but despite the bodily fluids and dry-humping I felt like the production wasn't quite as raucous as it could have been.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is booking until the 18th of February at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then touring to Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Richmond and Bath.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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