The Taming Of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
In our modern political correctness we tend to think of Shrew as a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison's Shrew is more about status than misogyny.
Status is one of those concepts beloved of actors when developing a role: one can learn so much about a character (and, indeed, a play) by looking at characters' status in relation to others', and, indeed, at the changes of status as the play progresses. You remember that lovely Monty Python sketch, "I look up to him because... but I look down on him because..."?
At the start of Morrison's production a stag party bursts onto the stage, causing total havoc in the street and in a lap dancing club. They depart and we see a club hostess demanding money from a dancer who only reluctantly and after some presure, hands it all over. Then suddenly a figure is thrown through a window and lies, surrounded by the shattered glass, in the street, where he is spotted by a passing Lady, her P.A. and three hunstmen. This Lady decides to have some fun at the unconscious victim's expense: they are to convince him that he is a Lord and that his memory of being something of a down-and-out is just a dream.
A group of actors arrive (a van backs onto the stage, disgorging them, their costumes and props) and much is made of the fact that the down-and-out - Christopher Sly - has never seen a play before. He is clearly the lowest status person there. He is told he has a wife - but this wife is, in fact, a male servant in drag - and he doesn't realise it.
The play within the play begins, beautifully over the top, merges into the well-known plot of The Taming of the Shrew and Sly becomes Petruchio. But the over-the-top feel doesn't go away, it merely changes, for this Petruchio is vicious without the "this hurts me more than it hurts you but you've got to learn" feeling that many modern productions strive for. Here is a man who will be master and Katherina, in that wonderful scene where they first meet, is a match for him. He must be boss, so he must break her.
And break her he does, of course, and her final speech - "Fie fie! Unknit that threatening unkind brow" - signals his total victory. But Morrison doesn't leave it there: he creates a final scene which takes us back to Christopher Sly who, unconscious again, is stripped of his Petruchio clothing and left lying in underpants alone as the actors pile into their van to depart. The actress who played Katherina walks over to him and tips his Christopher Sly clothing onto him out of a bin bag.
From underdog to top dog and back to underdog - with the last insult delivered by the woman he had supposedly broken.
This status fight runs throughout the play: when Tranio "becomes" Lucentio, he too plays the status game; Grumio lords it over Petruchio's other servants; after their marriages, Lucentio and Hortension try to lord it over their new wives, who will not play the game. And so it goes on.
It's a fast moving, imaginative production, and great fun. The performances are excellent, especially from the two leads, Stephen Boxer as Sly/Petruchio and Michelle Gomez as Hostess/Katharina, but special mention should also be made of the ever-reliable Sean Kearns as Hortensio, Peter Shorey (Gremio) and Keir Charles (Tranio). Francis O'Connor's set, too, contributes not a little to the show's success. I wasn't keen on Conall Morrison's Macbeth but this is a different matter both in concept and execution. See it if you can!