The comedy of how Katharina, ‘the Shrew’ is apparently ‘tamed’ by the shock tactics of her unpredictable wooer Petruchio raises problems for those staging or watching it. Apparently relishing devising ways to reduce Kate to a shivering, starving travel-stained wreck, he declares ‘this is a way to kill a wife with kindness’.
Shakespeare adds a framing device, where their story is a play within a play, staged by a lord as a practical joke on the drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, persuading him he’s also a lord who has commanded the performance.
This is often omitted, but Heather Davies’ spirited and funny outdoor production begins in one part of the Oxford Castle grounds, where the audience are party to the duping of Sly. As the play proper proceeds in the glorious natural theatre provided by the Castleyard, Sly finds himself, script in hand at first, playing Baptista, father of Katharina and the nubile Bianca. The blurring of the framework works perfectly for this small company where almost everyone has to double roles, and Richard Burnip makes a subtle transition to beleaguered parent.
Despite the medieval surroundings, the action is set in the Fifties, complete with rock ‘n roll music, jiving couples and wasp-waisted swirly midi skirt for Jo Theaker’s mischievous Bianca. Ben Joiner’s aggressive but attractive Petruchio, sporting slicked-back hair and zoot suit, fits well in this setting, a time when girls were girly and men got to dominate – on the dance floor at least!
Emma Pallant’s Katharina stands out in manly slacks and the look suits her defiant swaggering. But in her detailed and touching portrayal, she takes obvious pleasure in donning a traditional wedding dress. So she wins real sympathy when she re-appears exhausted in the same dress now torn and mud-stained after Petruchio has subjected her to a hellish journey to the marital home.
Since there’s been a sexual charge between them from their first meeting, she keeps that sympathy as Petruchio continues his campaign; yet perhaps she does win in the end for she acts out her famous speech with such relish, that it seems this is her ploy to make him ‘hopelessly devoted’ to her as the song goes. Both seem hungry for that final kiss.
Petruchio and Katharina take centre stage, but Tim Daish’s love-struck Lucentio makes a great double act with Michael Palmer’s cocky servant Tranio, relishing swapping with his master. Darrell Brockis and Andrew Macbean as Bianca’s other suitors and Richard Kidd as Petruchio’s long-suffering man Grumio, earn plenty of laughter in this delicious summer evening’s entertainment.
-By Judi Herman