The Taming of the Shrew
This is a stream-lined version of The Taming of the Shrew that transposes to a modern London setting the tale of competition for the hand of a pretty young woman and the need to find a husband who will take on and 'tame' her feisty elder sister first. Italian and period references remain so there is sometimes a conflict between what you hear and what you see.
Petruchio is described arriving with a rusty sword with broken hilt but has none, when a servant is sent off to prepare horses he returns with bikers' helmets and at one point Petruchio and his hench(wo)man fist their fingers to turn them into guns so you have to allow a little licence with the modern dress.
Even more licence has been taken with the text. It is heavily cut, mainly I imagine to reduce the cast list. The Christopher Sly framing has gone completely and except for Grumio (now an efficient female PA played with spirit by Sarah Winn) - Petruchio's household staff have disappeared along with Lucentio's father, the widow who marries Hortensio and other hangers on so that those sections of the story that involve them are largely lost, including most of Petruchio's more sadistic handling of Katherine. That helps to make Petruchio a little more humane but it doesn't solve the problem the play presents to modern audiences of making early-modern mores fit modern gender politics for Katherine still has her final speech declaring that "thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper".
In fact in this version one senses not so much a taming as a complicity. There is a moment, early in Petruchio and Katherine's verbal sparring, when Elexi Walker's lively Brixton Black Katherine has a glint in her eye that suggest she's really taken to this fella and is going to play along with him. Later, after a first married night at Petruchio's place she and Simon Darwen's Petruchio seem to have a real understanding. Something went right in bed. It's not in the text but it seems there in the playing.
From the first scenes in what could easily be Borough Market, not half a mile away, director Robin Norton-Hale has given her production a light touch and a street-wise feel. The elderly characters have disappeared, Matthew Newman's Gremio is another youngster and the girls' father must have had his children barely out of his teens: Dave Fishley's smart-suited Brabantio is one of those very British Blacks who's done well in business. Simone James's Bianca, the favoured younger daughter and Katherine's sister, may play the ethnic card a little but the family is loaded. With a suave Hortensio from Giles Roberts, Will Featherstone as Bianca's love interest Lucentio and Simon Ginty as his man Tranio this is a well-matched ensemble.
Designer Cherry Truluck has created a playing space on a diagonal with the audience on three sides around it that keep the action up close and intimate. Baptista's comfortable home is reduced to one leather sofa behind the market stalls.
Her cuts may have made Robin Norton-Hale's job an easier one but she has created a show that will be an audience pleaser.
"The Taming of the Shrew" runs at Southwark Playhouse until 29th October 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton