The Taming of the Shrew
Black suits against a black walled stage are not the obvious way of playing a comedy and this version of Shakespeare's play about a bossy sharp tongued elder sister brought to heel by a dozen doubled dose of her own behaviour by an adventurer looking for a wealthy wife doesn't exactly get a barrel of laughs. But, though in a programme note director James Tobias calls The Taming of the Shrew 'one of Shakespeare's funniest, most controversial plays', it may not be laughs he is after but to emphasise the duplicity and more of all the suitors for Katherine and her sister Bianca and he has set it in the rough world of 1960s London gangland.
Tamer Petruccio has become Pete, Lucentio Luke and Hortensio Horace, but other characters keep their Italian names though Baptista, the girls' father, becomes their mother. This is a society where even Kate will suddenly wield a machine gun, though she doesn't look very used to it.
Things start very slowly with music to build up to the slow gathering on stage of what turns out to be a whorehouse madam and her girls to play out the Induction in which a drunk is duped into thinking he's a lord - despite the abundance of women the original script is followed and a man is brought on in drag to be his pretend lady. It already launches us into the role-play disguises of the play that follows but it drags on, despite the energy of the performers.
Matthew Flack's Pete is full of energy too and tends to dominate the play when he is on but he gives the man an odd delivery, pausing between individual words and belting them out like gunshots. He has confidence and lots of breath so why does he break up every phrase, whether in verse or prose? Occasionally it may have a powerful effect but this is no aid to comprehension. The inability to deliver phrases longer than one word or three is an infection that seems virulent among contemporary actors tackling early modern verse dialogue and there are others in this company who have caught it, thankfully not Rochelle Parry's intelligent well-spoken Kate or Steven Wickenden's deceptively gentleVince(nto) who bring a welcome naturalness to their playing. John Grayment's aging, hobbling suitor Gremio is a little too consciously being funny but, when he gets a meaty passage, delivers it with skill. A little more of the touch of commedia del' arte style he brings to the production would be welcome.
Cuts and names apart, Tobias has not tampered with the text: even the introduction of a fatal shooting is placed to fit the script, bur it does seem a little excessive to have blood-smeared Petruccio (sorry Peter) have a corpse dragged behind him to his wedding. No one pays any attention to it (though they do remark on his hat, despite him being hatless). I fail to see what point it is making and it certainly puts the dampers on any hope of finding his behaviour funny
The Kray Twin's world was one where women were expected to look lovely, be supportive and keep out of men's affairs, a society cleverly chosen to match the male attitudes of this play, but one that is perhaps too close to the gunshots and flashing knives of contemporary streets in a way that stifles laughter. Sure, black comedy is one way in which you can make the brutalities of The Taming of the Shrew work today but this production has not found a style that makes it funny, though going someway to reveal a subtext that is so often submerged in exuberant romping.
Runs until 27th February 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton