Thursday, 26 July 2012

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare's Globe)

It's far from being one of my favourite Shakespeares but The Taming of the Shrew has been cropping up a lot lately and now comes to Shakespeare's Globe in a production I was mostly looking forward to because Samantha Spiro would be taking on the role of Katherina. An incredibly tricky comedy to stage for a modern audience, it's one I always feel has to be overcome rather than simply interpreted. All the eligible bachelors of Padua are after the beautiful heiress Bianca, youngest daughter of Baptista. But before any of her suitors can win her hand, Baptista insists that his older daughter Katherina be married off first. This will be harder than it seems, as Katherina is famed for her bad temper. Enter Petruchio (Simon Paisley Day,) who says he'll not only marry the "Shrew" for her hefty dowry, but also tame her (through starvation and sleep deprivation) into the perfect wife.

Director Toby Frow is making his Globe debut and doesn't stray far from the house style in a Renaissance-dress production (designed by Mike Britton) heavy on audience interaction, with a lot of running around the Yard, slapstick and the compulsory discharge of bodily fluids. There's rather too many instances of the "looking out into the audience with a 'who, me?' expression" type of physical comedy, especially from Rick Warden's Hortensio. But one of the more notable aspects is how much of the smutty humour in the dialogue, not just the physical comedy, comes out in this production - I think the line about spitting into the hole of the instrument to make it play better is the only one that didn't hit the mark. I guess it's apt enough that a production starring an actress who once played Barbara Windsor should have a Carry On feel to it.

Spiro brings a touch of Miss Piggy to her kung fu Katherina, taking out her frustrations on family, suitors and set alike, while a nice scene of sibling rivalry suggests that her real problem is that Sarah MacRae's Bianca is just a lot better than her at hiding her true nature. (Bianca, after all, may as well be mute for the first couple of acts, but shows a bit of her sister's spirit once she does get a chance to speak.) Paisley Day goes for a fairly likeable take on Petruchio but still got booed when describing his new wife as his chattel. I've never seen a production that manages to deal with the play's misogyny, at least not without creating new problems in its stead, and Frow's take on the play kind of tries to have its cake and eat it: The "taming" scenes are played pretty straight, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on Petruchio's mistreatment of the staff: Katherina becomes the perfect lady of the house partly to compensate for its lord being so egregious. But in the climactic return to Padua Spiro adds a hint of mischief to her performance, of being in on the joke with her husband (who takes her hand rather than let her place it under his foot.) It's a more comfortable way to end the evening but only slightly so: Petruchio hasn't tortured Katherina into becoming a Stepford Wife, but he has tortured her into sharing this joke at everyone else's expense.

Elsewhere Joseph Timms and Jamie Beamish have fun with Lucentio and  Tranio respectively, and Pearce Quigley's Grumio has a nice disdain for his superiors, best demonstrated in a running joke involving a bucket. The subplot involving the real and fake Lucentios and their real and fake dads remains one of the most tedious in all of Shakespeare with an interminable amount of setup which does at least, this time around, get a brilliantly funny payoff scene when all the deceptions are found out. This ends up being a pretty textbook Shrew, both in how well the play's better elements can be made to work, and in how genuinely problematic it is: Without any high concept imposed on the titular taming, you're left with a very funny evening but one that leaves one hell of a nasty aftertaste.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 13th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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