How many more stabs at ironing out the “problems” of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew does the theatre world actually want? It seems nowadays a large section of any audience going to see a production of this misogynistic dunderpiece go simply to see if the latest incarnation has managed to shine much-wanted light on subtext and exonerate the great man from his accusers. (In the same vein the book is perhaps closed on The Merchant of Venice, although new vibrant attempts to realign Richard III are afoot). As far as acrobatic post-modernist twisting of the source material to address issues of the today (and hereafter) go, Jo Clifford’s sharp 75-minute bawdy circus act is not a bad effort at all. Perhaps there is some life in the old Shrew yet.
Michael Fentiman’s direction (in a collaboration between the Sherman and Tron Theatre of Glasgow) is a mash of knowing self-deprecation (or at least deprecation of Shakespeare’s moral thin ice), stodgy musical numbers, fast-paced comic turns and solid confident performances. Here the gender roles are reversed, the universe of this Shrew is one where women rule in a kind of anti-Atwoodian phase of societal evolution, but the tags of Shakespeare remain – so we have the boy Kate, the female Gremio etc. The set resembles the ring of a big top (are we meant to reflect on the image of the Petruchio the female-ringmaster?), but the action spends much of its time spilling out of it, and even has moments taking place in the audience. This is a version that uses the tried-and-tested aggravation of pressing “theatre” as the framing idea to a piece of theatre. It might have got in the way were it not for winning energetic performances from the cast, and a serious, if funny, approach to the ideas behind the reimagining.
Jo Clifford is a transgender playwright of international reputation, and Michael Fentiman a director of impressive pedigree (including, interestingly, a gender-swapping Taming of the Shrew for the RSC in 2014), and what might have been a chaotic ill-disciplined upchuck of philosophising on gender politics is given a focus and drive. Welsh theatre, particularly “political” theatre, could do with a lot more of this level of sophistication and experience.
Scarlett Brookes is a winning Petruchio, surrounded by solid turns from Claire Cage and Louise Ludgate. Alexandria Riley as Tranio and Hannah Jarrett-Scott as Lucentio spend much of the action flanking the stage, providing charismatic support to the central action. Jarrett-Scott delivers most of the music, which much of the time seems slightly forced but overall adds to the circus atmosphere. A dud evocation of Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” strangely castrated of some of its most provocative lines (“I wish I wish I wish I was born a man”, as well as its glorious profanity), is more than made up for with a beautiful solo piano version of Squirrel Flower’s “Not Your Prey”. Much of the rest of the music seems there to paper over scene changes, and also add a bit of pep to an already pretty energetic show.
Of the male actors, François Pandolfo gets the most consistent laughs of the evening for his turn as compliant Bianca in a snake-hipped performance. Matt Gavan is a powerful presence as Katherine, who has the difficult task of making the firebrand spiral down to a vole in just 75 minutes. But he manages to bring the audience with him, and the tumultuous scene where he agrees the sun is the moon is genuinely moving. It is a shame then that there is little real chemistry between Gavan and Brookes, seeing as so much in most productions of Taming of the Shrew depend on this. Rich interpretations often can be taken from the way to the two leads take on the roles – are Kate and Petruchio actually conspiring in a charade? Is it a trick they are playing on us as well? Does Petruchio gradually genuinely fall in love with Kate as he is eroding the very thing he loves about her? None of that gets touched on. Petruchio and Kate never quite click and so the eye of the storm never quite feels worth chasing.
But this is not a production too concerned with leaving much to the shaky responsibilities of subtext or nuance. This is a Shrew for our time, and this is a time of simple messaging writ large and loud.
(Image credit: Mark Douet)
The Taming of the Shrew is on at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff until March 16th.