The Taming of the Shrew is one of the Shakespeare plays that today’s audiences find most uncomfortable. The notion of a free-spirited woman being psychologically tortured and starved until she loses her spark has most people cringing in their seats.
But director Gregory Doran’s radical interpretation turns the whole ethos of the play on its head. Like most modern stagings, he dispenses with the Christopher Sly sub-plot - he has no need for it as this is not a morality tale but a simple love story.
Rather than a gold-hunting bully seeking to dominate, Jasper Britton’s Petruchio is at heart an adventurer, motivated by sport as much as anything, who’s quite clearly smitten from early on. Alexandra Gilbreath’s Kate is more than a match for him, too. The scenes between them are reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick’s wordplay, as each spars with the other, and their relationship crackles with sexual desire, exemplified by the ecstatic whoop of joy Kate lets out when Petruchio says “we’ll to bed”.
Throughout, Gilbreath takes us on a finely judged journey of a woman falling in love for the first time and fleeing the shackles of a father (nicely played by Ian Gelder), who scarcely loves her and has time only for her fair younger sister, Bianca. This Kate is less shrewish than bored and frustrated, waiting for someone who’s her equal.
Doran adds some nice touches. During the first night back home, Petruchio sits with a portrait of his father - a reminder of his recent death and Petruchio’s grief-fuelled mental turmoil. It’s also his father’s falcon that prompts the famous speech in which Petruchio reveals his plans to ‘tame the shrew’ with kindness – which, we sense, he genuinely means. And it’s good to see a Taming that doesn’t have Petruchio supping heartily as Kate goes hungry. Theirs is a shared deprivation.
The excellent couple aside, the real strength here derives from so many good supporting performances too, particularly from Rory Kinnear as Tranio, a servant with delusions of grandeur, and a very funny Hortensio from Paul Chahidi.
All told, this is a joyful production that’s funny and genuinely moving. It’s a welcome return by the RSC to London, and it reminds us of the pressing need for a permanent home for this flagship company - for when they’re good, they’re very, very good.
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following review dates from April 2003 and this production's original season at Stratford-upon-Avon.
This production of The Taming of the Shrew would be counted a triumph if only for the fact that critics from the Guardian and Daily Telegraph - who damned the play as "totally offensive" and "horrid" - have found themselves here lost for superlatives.
Director Gregory Doran has been responsible for some of the RSC's greatest triumphs over the last few seasons and once again he has come up with gold. The Tamer Tamed - John Fletcher's riposte to the Shrew, currently showing at the Swan Theatre - is a very fine production. But with the Shrew, a greater work, Doran has excelled even these - very high - standards. This is a simply a wonderful evening.
At the heart of the play are two terrific performances by Jasper Britton as Petruchio and Alexandra Gilbreath as Kate. God, they say, is in the detail, and there is much to savour in this production. Take the wooing scene. It is clear from this reading that the Kate who has railed at all and sundry, smashed plates and strung her sister by her wrists from a door handle is also insecure and in need of affection.
And Petruchio, far from being a male chauvinist pig, is damaged by the death of his father and terrified at first of his wild bride-to-be. Despite himself, he woos and wins her by outdoing her in outrageousness, and despite herself, she falls in love. When he has brought her home and is setting about her 'taming', a troubled Petruchio ruminates: "Let him now that knows better, speak; 'tis charity to show."
Britton and Gilbreath though are superbly supported by Christopher Godwin as the rich and seedy old suitor Gremio; Peter Chahidi as Hortensio; Rory Kinnear as Tranio and Ian Gelder as Baptista Minola, to name but a few of the stellar cast.
Stephen Brimson Lewis' set - featuring a series of doors, some on the stage, some suspended above - is simply effective; the costumes roughly period. There is nothing to detract from Shakespeare's play, which has been superbly realised here. The focus is, as it should be, on the text, suiting the action wonderfully to the words. Ace.
- Pete Wood