The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is transformed by designer Liam Bunster for this production of perhaps the Bard's most problematic play. A raised platform leading to the upper gallery divides the space somewhat in two, and there are plenty of other ladders and platforms for the nine-strong cast (plus two musicians) to nimbly climb across throughout the show. It creates – as noted in the programme – a space for the performers to explore and play with, and for the most part this is successful. It is somewhat thrilling at times to find out where the voices are coming from, or see the performers manoeuvre across the many levels of the set.
It's also incredibly aesthetic – all neutral browns and golds, with base costumes of cropped unitards, tights and beige shirts akin to a Renaissance PrettyLittleThing collection. But despite the gorgeous-looking set and promises of a theatrical experiment, this Shrew is all bark and no bite.
Rehearsals for Maria Gaitanidi's production began with the cast not knowing which role they would be playing, instead exploring the text as a completely blank canvas. Though an interesting idea in practice, on stage it can feel as if the actors are still treading carefully through the script, ensuring they are reciting their lines correctly since they only had a short time rehearsing in their particular roles. Katherina (Melissa Riggall) in particular seems furthest from character description, with no vim or wild nature and bored by the whole affair. Ironically, sister Bianca (Evelyn Miller) has more attitude. While the whole experiment may feel exciting for the company, it does not translate into an entertaining evening for the audience.
This Shakespeare performance is not suitable for those unfamiliar with the text. Clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes, its pacing drags (particularly when sat on the backless wooden benches) and it's unclear what the production wants to highlight, such as Katherina's entire personality. The play-within-a-play concept – so often forgotten – is used to some effect in act one with Michelle Terry's Biondello as director, though this is swiftly dropped once act two begins. The music (Vasillis Sarikis) feels jarring against the action, and there's the odd choice of including a full song directly before Katherina's final rousing speech.
Luckily there are some moments – though these are few and far between – that shine through, with Mattia Mariotti's performance as both Tranio and Grumio mining the lines for all the sarcastic digs to make the text clear and full of meaning. But overall there's a sense of lad culture not fully honed, as Hortensio (Ryan Ellsworth) and Gremio (Raymond Anum) take several shots of whiskey while professing they would both like to marry Bianca, or as Petruchio's (Paul Ready) servants ignore him while lighting all the many candles. It seems to always be on the verge of something interesting – suggestive but incohesive.
Perhaps a few more weeks in the rehearsal room would give this show the lift it needs. Perhaps theatrical experiments need to reach a conclusion before being presented to the public.