The Taming of the Shrew – review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

What to do with The Shrew? Basically, you can either treat it as a drunken tinker's sexual fantasy, or a faintly perverse love story. Lucy Bailey's new production leans towards the former, even to the extent of turning the Stratford stage into a gigantic bed. The result is vigorous, lively and inventive, but it never touches the heart or makes you care deeply about the people.

Bailey gives a lot of prominence to Christopher Sly, keeping him on stage virtually throughout and suggesting that what we are watching is a pissed workman's wish-fulfilling dream. This explains, even if it doesn't vindicate, many of the play and the production's excesses. So when we see Petruchio trussing Kate up after the marriage ceremony, as if she were indeed his "chattels", or subjecting her to sensory deprivation, we can supposedly comfort ourselves by saying that this is all happening inside Sly's head. But the reality is that we eventually forget about the frame and focus on Shakespeare's picture of courtship and married love.

Bailey approaches this first by shrewdly updating the action to the chauvinist world of 1940s Italy. Psychologically, she also suggests that Petruchio and Kate are a pair of misfits instinctively drawn to each other. The first reaction of David Caves's rootless Petruchio, on seeing Lisa Dillon's Kate, is a cry of: "Wow." And Dillon, for her part, plays Kate as a figure of almost pathological wildness, clearly drawn to Petruchio, but also prepared to urinate at his feet when he forces her into marriage. Both actors are excellent at suggesting that the characters are truculent outsiders engaged in a fierce battle of the sexes. But the battle is more physical than verbal, and the filthy wit of their first great encounter goes for little. Even in Dillon's mockingly ironic final speech of submission, you feel this is a relationship based exclusively on sex without much hint of love.

Bailey's crowded canvas is, however, packed with as much animated detail as a Fellini movie. In the subplot, David Rintoul superbly plays the ageing suitor, Gremio, as a posturing plutocrat seemingly accompanied by his own invisible mirror. John Marquez as Tranio, the servant-turned-master, floats around in two-toned shoes as if born to command. And Elizabeth Cadwallader cleverly turns Bianca, Kate's younger sister, from the usual simpering victim into a headstrong hotpants. It's a production that seethes with frantic activity and that is filled with delightful oom-pah-pah music from John Eacott and the band. What was rarely felt however, even in the tortuous central relationship, was the warmth of spontaneous emotion.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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