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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Lisa Dillon/ Ph: Sheila Burnett

For a play that’s supposed to be out of sorts with feminism and unpalatable to contemporary taste buds, The Taming of the Shrew is surprisingly and perennially popular. Lucy Bailey’s tremendous 1940s Italianate production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is the RSC’s third go at it in eight years.
All sorts of excuses are made by apologists for Petruchio’s campaign of viciousness and torture in subjugating Kate to his will and their marriage: that he is as mad as she; that he is challenging our expectations of how a woman is supposed to behave; that the plot is a template for an ideal Elizabethan marriage; even, that you have to think of it in terms of a training manual to falconry; and now, according to Bailey herself, that the starvation, the taunting, the physical violence – all this is just jolly old foreplay.
What nobody ever says is that the play is just flat out funny and that we all enjoy watching two sexy protagonists pummel each other with words as much as with fists. Shrew is a fantastic farce, with a great plot, and several layers of reality, all bound up in a drunken tinker’s dream.
That much is clear at Stratford, where Bailey’s designer, Ruth Sutcliffe, places the entire action on the thrust stage on a huge bed, where Christopher Sly falls asleep and the revels unravel, with jazz band and processions, like some gaudy small-town fiesta.
Catching this holiday mood is a difficult thing in the theatre. The last RSC production, for instance, sunk under the weight of its grim leading players and obsession with sex city opportunism. Here, the playing is light, tight and resourceful with only one serious moment of grossness – when Lisa Dillon’s Kate appears to urinate freely as an ultimate protest, the first instance of onstage micturition since Jane Horrocks wet her knickers when sleepwalking as Lady Macbeth opposite a very young Mark Rylance.
And even that is so unexpected, it’s not really shocking. David Caves, a new young Irish actor who made waves as Macheath in Bailey’s The Beggar’s Opera in Regent’s Park last summer, is a tattooed, muscle-rippling urchin rather than a street-fighting bully, and his swagger is wonderfully athletic, endearing even.
The other great thing about Shrew is the gallery of good comic roles surrounding these two, and the RSC’s ad hoc collection of support players – I’ve given up trying to discern any through casting or ensemble policy, whatever artistic director Michael Boyd (who’s announced his departure at the end of this year) says – take full advantage.
So, we have a beautiful dumb blonde of a Bianca from Elizabeth Cadwallader; a strutting, hilariously ludicrous David Rintoul as her ageing suitor, Gremio; a brilliantly devious Lucentio, another thwarted suitor, from Gavin Fowler;and a genuinely funny Tranio from John Marquez. If the play is about Petruchio and Kate getting into each other’s clothes, this lot, and others, spend time swapping theirs.
As so often in Shakespeare, the dynamics of disguise work metaphorically as signs of identity, and almost everyone in this play ends up learning a bit more about themselves than they knew at the start. And the vortex of incident is what sucks them into their self-knowledge and us into their affection; this is why the play works.

The one thing we are absolutely certain of, at the end, is that Petruchio and Kate will stay together and have great sex. Sometimes you feel this won’t be the case. But the maturity of Kate’s great speech of compromise, beautifully delivered by Dillon as a more decent version of her golden shower (“A woman moved is like a fountain troubled”), brings a frantic and enjoyable evening to a moving, and deeply moral, conclusion.  


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