The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
(2003)

More than 400 years after William Shakespeare discovered his muse to become a man for all time, experts are still finding new ways to praise him. Latest research which uses modern knowledge of neurology claims that the Bard was way ahead of his contemporaries in his understanding of the human mind. This helped him to describe the irrational behaviour of some of his finest characters including Macbeth, Lear and Richard III.

Shakespeare's reputation and genius continue to expand like Falstaff's waistline and his plays take on greater significance the more we thrust greatness upon him - with the odd exception.

Hang on a minute, I hear feminists and the politically correct interject. What about The Taming of the Shrew? Naturally enough, some people have a problem with it because of Petruchio's treatment of Katherine. He almost starves her of food, dresses her in rags and deprives her of sleep - a theme the Bard returns to with a much greater life-observation in Macbeth - before she becomes the dutiful wife.

If Shakespeare was so great, why didn't he foresee the day when women would be equal to men, argue the critics.

I don't know whether director Gregory Doran is uncomfortable with The Taming of the Shrew and if he is making a concession to the dissenters by staging it with John Fletcher's sequel The Tamer Tamed. But he has taken a sideways look at The Shrew and come up with a jaw-droppingly good interpretation.

Whenever you go to see an RSC production you expect the best. You don't always get it - sometimes the desire to be different leaves you open-mouthed for the wrong reason as the customary treatment of the play is almost contemptuously discarded.

However, have no feelings of trepidation about Doran's production. It has pace - the almost ill-fitting first scene with Christopher Sly is omitted - style, panache and plenty of humour.

Jasper Britton portrays Petruchio in a totally novel way. He has doubts about whether he is doing the right thing in treating Katherine so harshly and you wonder whether he has to drink to summon up courage to face her. It's a tour de force by Doran in recognising the trait in the script and by Britton in pulling it off.

Alexandra Gilbreath's Katherine is a spoilt daughter, a ladette in modern terminology who occasionally shows a hint of reluctance about being so shrewish when Petruchio is trying to woo her. But that doesn't last long and she even bites Petruchio on the hand in a scene which brought warm applause from the audience.

As well as the humour in their sparring with each other, there are plenty of comical moments. Simon Trinder makes the most of his lines as the servant Biondello while Rory Kinnear minces around in shoes that are too tight for him when he swaps places - and clothing - with his master Lucentio.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's set, a number of easily moveable doors representing different houses in Padua, is clever and functional while Paul Englishby's music is evocative yet unobtrusive.

Despite ten of the 20 cast members being in their debut RSC season, there's not a weak link in the entire production. At the final marriage banquet, Petruchio places a bet on his wife's new-found obedience. The odds are just as certain that you'll miss a feast of entertainment if you don't see this.

The Taming of the Shrew runs until November 8th

Reviewer: Steve Orme