The first half of Edward Hall's production of The Taming of the Shrew is almost unbearable; unrelentingly shrill, played entirely for cheap laughs and with almost no emotional integrity. Occasionally we get a brief glimpse of something more when Vince Leigh's Petruchio (who doubles as Christopher Sly) is left alone or with Dan Wheeler's Katherine for a much-needed lull in the sensory onslaught, but barely anyone else is allowed to act without silly voice or posturing, and too much is plain inaudible.
Like the company itself, this production is a concept pushed way beyond its usefulness. Making the most of the often ignored play-within-the-play device, the whole first half is played as a thigh-slapping parody of theatricality, which gets old very quickly. Imagine someone employed Bottom's mechanicals to perform the whole Midsummer Night's Dream and you'll understand why this production doesn't work.
Those prepared to return for the second half will discover something much richer. Yes, the slapstick and buffoonery still feature but, increasingly, Leigh begins to do something really interesting with Petruchio. Rather than present Katherine's "taming" as a jolly romp, this production exposes it for the physical and psychological torture that it is. Wheeler too is allowed to find some depth in his role, as Katherine, now in rags, is made abject, forced to beg for food and claim the sun is the moon. This is more 1984 than Shakespearean comedy; the "shrew" is not tamed, but utterly broken, and it is as terrible to watch as it should be. No doubt the histrionics of the first half are intended to off-set the darkness of the second, but the pay-off doesn't quite justify the ordeal.
The Taming of the Shrew runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield until 11 May. For further information visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk