The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
Revellers on a stag do get up to bawdy antics. Their lust increases in a lap-dancing club. One of the party, almost too drunk to stand, is thrown out through a window.
A truck backs onstage, its lettering proclaiming the Players undertake works that are comical, tragical, historical and pastoral.
A lady and her staff try to convince the drunk that he's a lord and the Players have come to perform a comedy for him.
Conall Morrison in his production of The Taming of the Shrew doesn't shy away from tackling the problem of how to portray Shakespeare's induction. Christopher Sly is omitted from a fair number of Shrews these days - yet it can add an extra layer to a production, as it does here.
In fact Morrison goes further than Shakespeare, who didn't envisage Sly's reappearance. Petruchio metamorphoses into Sly at the end of the play; it's a sad conclusion as Sly, stripped of nearly all his clothing, realises he's not a lord after all and everyone was simply poking fun at him.
The beginning affords Stephen Boxer, probably best-known for a stint as Dr Joe Fenton in the BBC TV series Doctors, an opportunity to show his versatility. He's totally credible as a gullible drunk believing he's been inexplicably promoted to the aristocracy.
When he re-emerges as Petruchio, his undoubted talent radiates. He presents us with a cruel chauvinist who is startlingly indifferent about his vindictiveness towards his wife and his servants. It's a totally absorbing performance.
Michelle Gomez, who was in the Channel 4 comedy Green Wing, is equally as memorable as Katherina. She displays the fire and irascibility normally associated with the character early in the play yet gives us far more. She elicits a great amount of sympathy for the almost brutal treatment she gets from Petruchio and also the way she finally crumbles into submission at her husband's unrelenting heartlessness.
This is an energetic production with the occasional tense moment as well as a huge slice of comedy.
I especially enjoyed the performances of Keir Charles, the servant Tranio who smugly swaggers when he adopts the persona of his master Lucentio; Larrington Walker, the merchant who similarly struts around the stage when he pretends to be Lucentio's father; Jack Laskey as effervescent Biondello; and William Beck who can find the funny side of continually being on the wrong side of his master Petruchio.
Francis O'Connor, who designed the captivating set for A Midsummer Night's Dream which is also playing in the Courtyard, does another great job; a revolving hotel turns into Baptista Minola's home and much of Padua is represented by what looks like a model village.
A couple of debatable issues: when Biondello says Petruchio is arriving for his wedding wearing "an old jerkin" and "a pair of old breeches thrice turned", the groom appears in a dirty, blood-splattered dress, blonde wig and antlers.
And for the final scene when Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruchio try to get their wives to obey their commands, everyone changes into modern dress. The significance passed me by on both occasions.
But if laughter is the best medicine, most of this production is just what the doctor ordered.
"The Taming of the Shrew" continues until September 25th
Reviewer: Steve Orme