It is odd how the apparent nastiness of The Taming of the Shrew – the forcible subjugation of a woman in marriage after a campaign of torture and humiliation – often makes for a riotous and enjoyable evening in the theatre.
So it proves once more in Lucy Bailey’s spirited RSC revival, thanks to the vigour of the performances and the generous treatment of the play’s excesses. The Irish actor David Caves is a bone-headed but charismatic roisterer as Petruchio while Lisa Dillon as Kate manages to convey her submission as a challenge taken up on her own terms.
And the whole play is framed within the world of a dream on a huge, stage-filling bed – as big as the bed of Ware itself, an Elizabethan tourist attraction – where the drunken tinker Christopher Sly (Nick Holder) is unceremoniously dumped in the prologue.
There has to be some current of electricity flowing between Petruchio and Katherina in the first place, or the play founders, as it did, very badly, in the last RSC version. Caves and Dillon make a great couple, operating on a different level from Kate’s younger sister Bianca and her gallery of absurd suitors.
Bianca really is a dumb blonde in Elizabeth Cadwallader’s performance, confirming the good impression she made as Childie in last year’s London revival of The Killing of Sister George. Trailing in her wake are Gavin Fowler’s athletic Lucentio, John Marquez’s hilarious Tranio and the ridiculous, incendiary figure of David Rintoul’s Gremio.
Bailey and her designer Ruth Sutcliffe create a series of compelling encounters and flare-ups across the sheets of the bed, which never hamper the action or underline the metaphor: the world of Padua and the remoteness of Petruchio’s country house are easily accommodated.
“A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” for once seems an accurate summary of Kate’s position at the end, as Dillon assumes a hard won status as someone who really has made up her own mind within the conventions of the dating game.
You even begin to realise that the violent comic skirmishes are all about foreplay and that the conclusion is a guarantee that the participants have not made a terrible mistake in finding each other. Their joy, and ours, is unconfined.