When William Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew in the latter part of the 16th Century, one wonders whether he might have imagined his work being adapted for a 21st Century audience and performed at a pop-up auditorium in the Suffolk countryside.
Of course, Shakespeare's audiences - well, the less well-to-do anyway - were accustomed to watching plays while exposed to the elements and hence bringing the play out of the cramped confines of a theatre might be considered a return to its roots.
For the first time in its 14-year Theatre In The Forest history, the "forest" in question is a heavily wooded area at the TV-famous Jimmy's Farm on the outskirts of Ipswich, where a smaller cast than usual for Red Rose Chain has the greatest of fun with this Elizabethan comedy, injecting their own brand of anarchic, infectious humour into it.
As the eponymous Shrew, Katharine, Kirsty Thorpe is a revelation, bringing a traditionally spirited, yet oddly vulnerable, aspect to the role. Thorpe's skills as an actor have, to date, mainly been restricted to the company's film work but this is an impressive first outing that shows her ability to tackle not only the rigours of Shakespearean language but a demanding physical performance as well.
Opposite her, and fresh from a far more serious role as George Boleyn in Fallen In Love, Scott Ellis gives a robust and accomplished portrayal as shrew-tamer Petruchio, all swagger and unfeasibly tight hot pants (don't ask!). Ellis is becoming something of a Red Rose Chain regular, having also appeared in the company's seasonal three-hander, The Magic Fishbone.
Unusually, artistic director Joanna Carrick doesn't appear in The Taming of the Shrew, but is content to put her cast — Joel Johnson, Beatrice Rose, Laurence Pears, and Owen Morgan through their paces and, to be honest, the more objective eye is obvious, resulting in slicker pace and better observed comedic set pieces.
The flavour is very much rural Italy and one could imagine the characters all trooping off to press olives or appear in a bolognaise sauce commercial after the finale wedding reception. Under the lights, Pears', Morgan's, and Ellis' bright blue, lime green, and purple (respectively) suits give the proceedings an air of the playroom, which suits this whimsical re-imagining perfectly.
Adding to the cast are three puppets, crafted by Red Rose Chain associate artist Jimmy Grimes, playing ancillary roles as the servants Tranio, Grumio, and Biondello, all operated adeptly by the cast.
If there is one niggle with The Taming of the Shrew at all, it's in the choice of play. Is Shrew, with its misogynist dynamic and themes of domestic violence, really aligned with the ethos of the socially-aware Red Rose Chain? Of course, it could be claimed that the production is an effective way to raise the profile of these issues but, presented in such a laugh-a-minute way, any serious moral message is muted.
That being said, Carrick has delivered what could arguably be called Red Rose Chain's most accessible and flawless open-air production to date. The famous forest might have been downsized to a wood, the cast a rather reduced Shakespeare company, but Red Rose Chain has proved once again that it is one of our region's most prolific and imaginative creative forces.
- Paul Couch