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London Theatre Reviews

Edward MacLiam and Aoife Duffin/ Ph: Marc Brenner

CRUSHED BY A BODICE

By FIONA MOUNTFORD

Caroline Byrne's serious production shows a woman struggling under the weight of patriarchy.

I long to see a production of this always-problematic play where, counterintuitively, Katherine – don’t call her Kate; she doesn’t like it – isn’t all that Shrew-ish. If her behaviour could be a little more normalised at the start, the trials she subsequently undergoes would be all the more stark and shocking to audiences today. It’s the one thing I would tweak in this otherwise fine reading by director Caroline Byrne. Katherine has a newspaper in an early scene at her father’s house, but I would say she brandishes it rather than reads it. Why could she not be studying it intently, to show that she’s a woman of intelligence? And does she really have to be picking her nose ostentatiously when she first meets Petruchio? These sorts of gestures, too common in each new production, really don’t do the character any favours.
 
And Byrne is all about doing Katherine (Aoife Duffin, who took over from original lead Kathy Rose O’Brien at just two weeks’ notice after the latter broke her foot) favours. I’ve never seen the closing scene of Shrew angled in such a way as this before, and it’s a revelation. In a lifeless voice finally drained of all fight, Katherine dully lists a wife’s duties to her husband. This utterly crushed tone means that she publicly humiliates Petruchio (Edward MacLiam) through the humiliation he has inflicted on her. Nobody wins. It’s bitter. Gone far away is the more usual, more palatable spin that has Katherine somehow colluding jokily with her new husband in all her trials with the pair deeply in love. As a sharp essay in the programme points out, given that women in patriarchal societies around the world are still subjected to such unpalatable male behaviour today, it’s not much of a stretch to think of it going on 400 years ago.
 
Byrne sets the play in 1916 Ireland, to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. It’s something of an abstruse directorial conceit, but her point is that the equality promised to women in the Proclamation of Independence never materialised. Still, more tangibly it means we have a fine all-Irish acting company that performs to the emotive strains of exquisite Irish music from an onstage, four-piece band. Among the many things that Duffin, a real find of an actress, gets right is to sing in a voice that cracks with emotion.
 
She has mastered some intricate physical work as well, as the serious tone of this production is lightened by some skillful wordless sequences, particularly when Katherine is getting dressed – or rather being trussed into a rib-squashing bodice – for her wedding. Duffin, her face set in determination, makes Katherine fierce but true. She’s certainly more trustworthy than her coquettish sister Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), whose outward display of womanly virtue is undercut by all sorts of shenanigans on the sly. Katherine might be "forward" – how that accusatory adjective rings out – but what you see is certainly what you get. The men just don’t like it.