All-male Shakespeare productions often focus on the gender-swapping plays, where much can be made of the confusion between men and women. It’s therefore a bold move by Edward Hall and the Propeller Company to tackle this, the Shakespearean play that makes most modern women feel uncomfortable.
It’s double-daring however to eschew the usual modern approach to the drama, which postulates that Petruchio and Katherine are an ideal couple and have to undergo a series of trials to prove it. This couldn’t be more different: Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Petruchio starts out as a bullying monster and ends as a bullying monster, Simon Scardifield’s Katherine undergoes no epiphany along the way, only a quiet resignation to a life hitched to a domestic psychopath.
The final wedding scene is one of the darkest I’ve seen with a Katherine close to tears as she delivers her final speech, with a final, despairing glance at her father.
What doesn’t ring true is the disgust that Petruchio’s ‘triumph’ stirs in the rest of the wedding guests: in a society where women can be described as goods and chattels and where Baptista (well played by Bob Barrett) is willing to sell his other daughter to the highest bidder, it’s doubtful whether there would be that much concern for Katherine’s welfare. Petruchio turns up at his wedding looking like he’s come from cowboy night at Padua’s premier gay bar rather than in the tattered clothing that the text suggests – it’s the air of poverty that frightens the burghers.
The wedding merges with that in the Christopher Sly prologue (rather unusually these days, Hall keeps this scene in, and adds an epilogue taken from a 1594 version of the play). With Bruce-Lockhart tackling Sly as well as Petruchio, there’s more reason for Sly to identify with the taming elements; but it’s too neat a device – Sly would surely fall asleep after a wedding reception, not, as happens here, at his own wedding (making nonsense of his talk of a wife).
Hall’s strength is in bringing out the slapstick elements of the play. He brings a sure comic touch to many of the scenes, especially the one where Petruchio’s servants await his arrival.
There’s much good use of music too – although the song that introduces the second half “Did he marry her for love or did her marry her for money?” avoids asking the question, “or is it a chance to bully”. It’s an interpretation that might have been interesting with a female Katherine but here it looks like some perversion of a male fantasy.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from September 2006 and this production's earlier tour.
Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller Company’s take on Shakespeare’s controversial comedy is almost uncompromisingly bleak. Restoring the framing device of the drunkard, Christopher Sly, duped into thinking he’s a lord and the play an entertainment staged especially for him, Hall’s production actually begins at a wedding ceremony, with the audience as guests and Katherina a bride already abused by Sly, the bridegroom too drunk to take his vows.
What follows is a sort of wish-fulfilment dream as Dugald Bruce Lockhart’s Sly becomes an unpredictably capricious Petruchio, who sets about taming Simon Scardifield’s defiant Kate with only the slightest hint of subconscious attraction and admiration. The sparring is intensely physical and Scardifield’s Kate, already damaged by her father’s favouritism for Bianca, elicits sympathy, valiantly giving as good as she gets as Lockhart’s muscular Petruchio puts her down both physically and mentally.
Once he’s won her hand, her humiliation at this second wedding hits new depths – her bridegroom appears in his y-fronts and urinates into his hat. And Petruchio’s relentless taming regime piles on the agony and makes uneasy viewing. It may be Sly’s dream, but his violent behaviour, directed as much to his immaculately-dressed household servants as to Kate, is calculated to distance.
This wonderfully choreographed scene creates an unforgettable stage picture, the unhappy couple, bedraggled from the road, reflected in the gleaming tureens held out by a row of kitchen staff in white. Designer Michael Pavelka’s versatile fast-moving two-sided wardrobes provide opportunities for farce, which these most physical of performers expertly seize.
Unusually, the interlocking plot of Bianca and her disguised suitors is dominated by the older generation, thanks to a clutch of excellent portrayals of the fathers – real and fake. Bob Barrett’s Baptista is a commanding patriarch, as sympathetic in his exasperation at his difficult daughters as he’s suspect in his venality, auctioning Bianca (a neat, ladylike Jon Trenchard) to the highest bidder. Jason Baughan almost steals the scene, his pedant descending into his cups even as he revels in the fruits of his masquerade as Lucentio’s father; and it’s easy to see why Lucentio (Tam Williams) and his men are reluctant to cross the real Vincentio – a real martinet from Chris Myles.
The culminating scene is especially uncomfortable, Kate’s famous words as deliberate as they are hesitant, after a Brechtian staging of her bringing back the brace of sulky brides to a scene all three have barely left. The production works hard towards reincorporating the framing device to justify Sly’s learning his lesson, but ultimately it is the chilling reading of the shrew-taming that stays with you.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at the Watermill, Newbury)