views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Taming of the Shrew
The Rose
5th September 2013

★★★★☆

The Taming of the Shrew

Photography © Robert Piwko

The story of Katharina and Petruchio is usually referred to as one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's tales to stage in contemporary society. Taken at face value, it's nothing more than an anachronism that suggests women as chattels and gives the big thumbs up to domestic abuse. Of course, the play could be likened to Beauty and the Beast and that's a fairy story, but that's also an argument for another time. Equally, there's a reading that suggests Katharina to be considerably more manipulative and clever than she is given credit for, her final speech of obedience being in sarcastic tones, simply biding her time until she strikes back on an equal - or stronger - footing.

It's definitely the first and most literal interpretation that has burrowed deep under director Pamela Schermann's skin, though. She makes no bones about the allegory to slavery as Petruchio (Benedict Salter) forces his marriage to headstrong Kate (Carmina Kato) in a land grab, and Lucentio (Samuel Harris), Hortensio (James MacLaren) and Gremio (Matthew Eaton) fight for the affections of Kate's beautiful sister Bianca (Alexa Harley). Dowries are discussed with Baptista (Alexa Brown) as, for her, her girls are nothing more than objects to be bought by the highest bidder, regardless of intention. And if you haven't noticed already, to make things knottier in the gender politics stakes, Schermann has cast Baptista, originally the girls' father, as their madam. This isn't a romantic tale of a bitchy woman seeing the error of her ways when treated as she treats others, it's a loveless series of exploitations and sexual slavery.

And, for the most part, this really works. There are a couple of holes in this version, though, not least the fact that here Lucentio and Bianca do actually seem to love each other (even if a lot of that love comes from Bianca's perceived obedience). In playing their subplot entirely straight and down the line, any questions regarding the morality of his intentions are muddied. Better is the judicious editing that removes a fair whack of irrelevances and overcomplications (and boy, did the Bard love to overcomplicate things). Gone is the play-within-a-play framing device, the Vincentio subplot alluded to but more or less out the window. It puts political commentary front and centre and at a streamlined 100 minutes really works. Seriously, with some of the excellent abridged versions we've seen, we're rapidly coming to the conclusion that what Shakespeare really needed was a sub-editor to sort his work out.

The Taming of the Shrew

Photography © Robert Piwko

The inhumanity of the piece, outside of the subject matter itself, comes hugely from Salter's commanding performance. Usually represented as a bombastic, larger-than-life Brian Blessed figure, Salter's slight frame gives him an entirely different feel. The best comparison I can make is John Simm as Doctor Who's The Master - all self-assured, spiteful, spitting barely suppressed evil that dazzles the audience when it explodes. Kato's Katharina is initially his match, confident and determined, but we soon realise this isn't a Benedict and Beatrice trading of barbs, but something much more sinister. A swift display of physical dominance in particular was delivered so perfectly and out of left-field that we all felt it too.

"But Mr Reviewer," you say, "Isn't the Taming of the Shrew meant to be a comedy? All you've done is waffle on about wife-beating and - as per usual - Doctor Who!" Fret not, because this is still a comedy, albeit one with a social conscience. Schermann has really worked hard indeed to yank every last gag from the script, employing an ensemble of strong actors to do them justice. MacLaren's feeble Hortensio is Terry Jones running solely on caffeine and nervous energy, contrasting nicely with a dry, sarcastic and world-weary Grumio (Paul Valentine). Schermann also builds on the written gags with some physical comedy and background play as characters mock, undermine and casually flip the V-sign, making the few dry scenes engaging.

It's something you can see clearly thanks to Sophie Mosberger's minimalist set. Curtains and mirrors initially give the impression of a lavish brothel, but as Kate submits to Petruchio, these are despatched leaving only the cavernous and cold former Rose theatre. It's the perfect backdrop for the final scenes as Kate appears not as a woman scheming to tame the tamer, or as someone who genuinely accepts her lot is a better one, but as a bedraggled, pathetic figure, a dead-eyed zombie. Doubly depressing as I'm almost certain sound designer Ben Osborn uses snippets of the Divine Comedy's Songs of Love for blackly ironic scene changes.

While Time Zone's take on the tale might not be as wholly revolutionary as it thinks it is, there are nonetheless some nicely original tweaks that make it both timely and timeless. What it does, it does exceedingly well - achieving the aim of highlighting slavery - resulting in an accomplished and enjoyable, if brutal, production.

The Taming of the Shrew ran from 3rd to 28th September 2013 at The Rose.

Nearest tube station: London Bridge (Jubilee, Northern)



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