Shakespeare’s comedy, which depicts the breaking of a young woman’s will by her gold-digging new husband, has long divided audiences and critics alike. Is the play a reactionary relic from an unashamedly sexist age, or the depiction of two individuals with a playful approach to gender identity? This Nick Hutchison directed production appears to plump for the latter interpretation.
Propeller’s recent staging of the play at the Old Vic side-stepped the problem by presenting the action as the wish-fulfilling dream of Christopher Sly - a drunken tinker of rather disreputable aspect. Christopher also features in this version of the work, but here the prologue takes a more familiar form: the unconscious Sly is discovered outside an alehouse by a mischievous lord who installs him in his castle and tells him he is the noble master, newly restored from a bout of madness. He is then presented with a play: The Taming of the Shrew.
Enjoyment of Hutchison’s take on the story depends upon how persuaded one is by the “right on” rehabilitation of original work. This viewer remains unconvinced that the play is a coded satire on male chauvinism.
In keeping with the modern politics, the costumes are contemporary, and we are thrown into a world of chavs, trendy arty types and a dress designer with a strong resemblance to Karl Lagerfeld. However, such modishness only stresses how antiquated the plays’ social mores have become.
Also, the topical nods this show makes towards the TV chefs and C-list celebrities of today suggests an affectionate acceptance of these latter-day types. Siobhan Hewlett’s portrayal of Bianca as a potential Big Brother contestant seems particularly unfortunate in this respect.
That said, there are some fine performances to enjoy here. Rachael Stirling, an actress whose striking quality is a certain stillness, initially strikes one as a strange choice to play Kate. However, she manages to inject this difficult role with genuine pathos. Philip Voss exudes authority as Baptista Minola, and John Conroy’s Gremio is the epitome of desiccated dignity. Meanwhile, Annie Gosney’s design and Sarah Surridge’s costumes set the scene convincingly in this most beautiful of venues.
A darker, more intelligent reading of this play would make for highly entertaining theatre.