Thursday, 18 July 2013

Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew (Propeller)

The second of Ed Hall's Propeller shows that Dugald Bruce-Lockhart has revived for another tour is perhaps my least favourite Shakespeare comedy, and a problematic one in anyone's book, The Taming of the Shrew. Baptista Minola (Chris Myles) is a wealthy Paduan merchant whose younger daughter Bianca (Arthur Wilson) is much sought-after by the men of the city. But their hopes are threatened by Baptista's decree that before she marries her elder sister has to find a husband first - Katherine (Dan Wheeler) is notorious for her terrible temper. Some of her suitors hatch a plan to pose as tutors to get close to Bianca and compete for her affections; while for the obstacle in their way they've enlisted Petruchio (Vince Leigh,) who's willing to take on Katherine in return for her sizeable sodwry. But a wife with a mind of her own doesn't suit him and he proceeds to "tame" her into submission.

Propeller's version retains the prologue in which drunkard Christopher Sly is tricked into thinking he's a lord, and has the main play staged for him. Here the marital theme is extended out to the framing device, with Sly a badly-behaved groom who has the Shrew shown him to teach him a lesson - although perhaps the one he ends up leaving with wasn't the one intended.


For the first half this is standard high-octane Propeller fare, with a lot of fun to be had. Even without the problematic gender politics I just don't find The Taming of the Shrew particularly funny, its subplot of Lucentio (Finn Hanlon) wooing Bianca disguised as a tutor and exchanging his identity with his servant Tranio (Liam O'Brien) is incredibly contrived with little real reward. This company do manage to inject a lot of real humour into proceedings, but there's no question they've had to work hard to make it happen. Wilson is a great Bianca, playing her less as the innocent ingenue, rather almost as feisty as her sister, but better at keeping her true colours behind closed doors.


All the opportunities for humour are wrung out, with the smaller roles adding to the fun, like Ben Allen's dim, motor-mouthed Biondello in platford shoes (in keeping with the framing device, Michael Pavelka's costumes look like they've come out of a fancy-dress box for an impromptu performance) and Benjamin O'Mahony as Petruchio's long-suffering servant Grumio having to pull double duty as the fake Vincentio, with a lot of quick-changes as a result. I wasn't so sold on John Dougall's doddering Gremio - a bit too broad and a bit too similar to his Sir Andrew Aguecheek in this same rep season for me.


As we get to the wedding, there's strong hints that the production's going to take a much darker turn. After the interval (as usual featuring a charity collection and musical performance by the cast - in this hot weather, they decamped to the terrace outside the bar) it does indeed go for the jugular. I've always described the taming as torture which, by modern standards, starvation and sleep-deprivation undoubtedly are. And the production doesn't shy away from what the play is doing, even as Leigh's Petruchio turns to the audience to demand if anyone has any better ideas. Gary Shelford's Hortensio seems visibly upset by the mistreatment of the woman, but crucially does nothing to intervene.


As Wheeler's sobbing Katherine is broken down before our eyes, Hall's take on the play is brutally honest about exactly what is happening in Shakespeare's story, exposing the shocking misogyny and brutality. It's an approach I've seen attempted before with much less success, and the prolonged pin-drop silence from the audience during the almost unbearable final scene is a testament to the company's power - and reinforces my wish to see Propeller give a rest to reviving their past Comedies (another pair of reruns has already been announced for next season) and dig in to the Tragedies. This is an electric night at the theatre but it's working against the play, not with it: It has to expose its nastiness and beef up the lacklustre comedy to find this success. As such it's no closer to convincing me of the play's merits: Played honestly it becomes almost unwatchable, while any attempt to subvert the taming, even if successful (and I have seen some well-executed twists on what's really going on here) throw up new problems of their own.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is booking until the 20th of July at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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