Updating Shakespeare can be a tricky business, and presenting the potentially misogynistic ending of The Taming of the Shrew will always leave a modern audience asking questions. Is Katherine truly tamed? Is this a good thing? And is Petruchio a lovable git, or just a git?
Robin Norton-Hale’s latest production sets Shakespeare’s play in a city familiar to our own. When out-of-towner Lucentio (Will Featherstone) arrives, it is as an excitable tourist; Baptista (Dave Fishley) is a businessman who wants to secure the best deal for his daughters Katherine (Elexi Walker) and Bianca (Simone James); and Petruchio (Simon Darwen) is a bit of a Sloane-ranger.
As the eponymous shrew, sharp-tongued Katherine (Walker) comes across as smart rather than downright insolent, and her unorthodox relationship with Petruchio (Darwen) is something the audience can really get behind. Darwen himself gives a bullish performance, openly daring the audience to contradict him with the line, "He that knows better how to tame a shrew, now let him speak". He succeeds in being genuinely annoying, but as Kate warms to him, so do we: particularly in the second half of the performance, their sparkling exchanges sizzle with an honest and believable chemistry that is, surprisingly, rather touching.
It is good to see a production that brings out the immaturity of Bianca (James) and Lucentio’s (Featherstone) relationship. In almost all scenes, Bianca is sucking girlishly on a lollipop, and when the two realize they are able to wed, their grins are still covered in chocolate cake from a recent play-fight. For me, their chemistry is less believable than it could be – although, this might be the point, as the production’s ending is hardly optimistic about their future together.
The verse is generally spoken well, although Tranio (Simon Ginty) truly shines, speaking both distinctly and with an accessible charm that many actors rarely achieve; he is one to watch. Walker too is commendable, with her city-girl sass ensuring that Katherine’s frequent retorts are spoken with a cool relish. However while the language is made comprehensible enough, some of the more modern aspects of the staging are less consistently successful.
The relocation of a large proportion of the action to a bustling marketplace is a nice touch, but because of the thrust staging there are quite a few basic blocking issues that detracted from some of the most dramatic moments. While it is a witty addition to have Hortensio (Giles Roberts) ending a phone call with a suave "anon", the scene where he is disguised as a music tutor is irritatingly contrived (if the text calls for the character to tune an instrument, a good rule of thumb is to give him an instrument that can actually be tuned - an electronic keyboard makes no sense). Also, I would question whether or not you can still call something a banquet if it’s being served in polystyrene bowls.
Despite these niggles, it is an enjoyable show by a talented ensemble. The production is lively and fun, the characterization quirky, and there are stand out performances from Walker and Ginty. Shrewd theatre-goers should give it a go.
- Miranda Fay Thomas