Wednesday 1 June 2016

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

This year is the centenary of Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising, the setting Caroline Byrne has chosen for her production of The Taming of the Shrew; it's the only reason I can see for a season with a "Wonder" theme to include a play that's short of that quality on pretty much every front. Byrne's all-Irish cast are led by Aoife Duffin as Katherine, the eldest daughter of wealthy Padua merchant Baptista Minola (Gary Lilburn,) notorious for her violent temper. Her younger sister Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman,) on the other hand, is famed for both beauty and a pleasant personality and has numerous suitors, but they'll all have to wait as Baptista has decided that a husband has to be found for the elder daughter first. The suitors need someone to take that bullet and Petruchio (Edward MacLiam) sees her hefty dowry as reason enough to take her on.

Against her will, Katherine finds herself married to a man who takes the idea of her as his property literally, and is perfectly willing to torture her into becoming the perfect subservient wife.

The misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew is well-documented and modern productions always try - with varying levels of success - to acknowledge or subvert it. But a further problem I've always had with the play is that even in the scenes unrelated to the "taming," the comedy just isn't funny. Fortunately this production has a good pairing of Aaron Heffernan as Lucentio, the suitor Bianca herself likes best, and a wide-eyed Imogen Doel as Tranio, the servant with whom he swaps identities for reasons that presumably made sense to Shakespeare at the time.

Elsewhere though the humour is as lacking as it usually is in this play. If there's something worse in a Shakespeare comedy than the cast gesturing forcefully at their crotches to signify that they've just said something vaguely smutty, it's the audience's fake laugh to show they got the reference - both are abundant here, especially in the earlier scenes (the only times two American girls in the row in front of me broke off muttering to each other were when they heard the rest of the audience laughing and joined in.)

Byrne's production is stronger as tragedy than as comedy: Chiara Stephenson's design covers the stage in dark stone, even more oppressive after the interval as the doors to the musicians' balcony close, and the vast staircases of Baptista's mansion are replaced by a pile of mud with a bed in it for Katherine's new bedroom. The reason the Easter Rising was chosen as a setting is that it promised equality and freedom for all, including women, but the subsequent constitution betrayed that, in fact cementing women's position as homemakers into law. Meanwhile the contribution of women to the rising was brushed under the carpet by the history books, so instead of the framing device of Christopher Sly's dream we get a song repeated over the course of the play, wishing for the women's voices to be remembered.

And Duffin's Katherine is probably the least shrew-like Shrew I've ever seen - the only unreasonable behaviour being the scene where she ties up Bianca, otherwise she's essentially just independent and strong-minded, seeing no reason to behave differently to the men. So being married off to an abusive drunk is a betrayal, and even MacLiam's particularly unpleasant Petruchio, who's violent to Grumio (Helen Norton) long before the "taming" begins, looks upset by how far his actions have broken her down at the end, and takes her hand instead of putting his foot on it as requested. So the play's dark side is intensely and uncompromisingly dealt with, but the fact remains it's in the middle of a deeply unfunny comedy, and it's into that element - by far the majority of the play - that the production fails to inject any life.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 6th of August at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner, Johan Persson (another set of Globe production photos with a notable missing cast member, although there's a reason for the shrew-free Shrew pics - Aoife Duffin is a very late replacement for an indisposed actress so the promo shots were presumably taken before she joined the show.)

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