Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Propeller
Hampstead Theatre

Propeller's Taming of the Shrew Credit: Philip Tull

Ed Hall’s Propeller is an all-male company and Dan Wheeler’s wildcat Kate is the manliest brawling scold you ever did see. There is nothing feminine about him at all. He is a revolting bloke in drag. Petruchio (Vince Leigh) is not put out. “I am rough and woo not like a babe,” he says in what quickly proves to be the understatement of the year.

One way to make the play more acceptable to modern audiences has always been to have Kate and Petruchio fall in love on sight and to keep the sexual chemistry going. Nothing like that happens here.

Hall’s production opens with Christopher Sly passing out dead drunk at the altar on his wedding day. When he wakes up he is invited to watch a play about the taming of a shrew and then persuaded to take on the role of Petruchio. One of the advantages of this is that it immediately establishes that what we are seeing is a farce and not to be taken seriously.

The play is presented as a jest for a brainless tinker and Propeller acts it in a modern commedia dell’arte style in which the emphasis is on the physical rather than the verbal. Shakespeare’s actual text is funny though you would never guess this from the way the actors, who are playing Grumio and Gremio, carry on, trying to get laughs from the way they are saying their lines rather than what they are saying.

What do you think of a man who thinks his wife is his goods, his chattels and he can do anything he likes with her? Come to that, what do you think of a groom who arrives at his wedding bum-naked? Petruchio says he wants to curb Kate’s mad and headstrong humour; but what he actually wants to do is break her. Hall’s Shrew is, deliberately, the least funny I have seen and the scenes, once Kate is married, are horrid to watch. The brutality is unrelenting.

The only way to make her submissive speech acceptable today is to play it for irony; though I did once see Paola Dionsetti play it brilliantly for sarcasm and embarrass and humiliate Petruchio (Jonathan Pryce) in a memorable RSC production. Here Dan Wheeler’s Kate says the speech as if she had been brainwashed. I have seen nothing like it since Thelma Holt played Kate as if she were the Duchess of Malfi in Charles Marowitz’s adaptation called The Shrew.

There is no reconciliation, not even at the very end. Kate remains married to a sadistic monster who has merely married her for her fortune and fat chance she has of seeing any of that money.

Propeller’s The Taming of the Shrew is playing in tandem with Propeller’s Twelfth Night.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch