The Taming of The “Shrew”

William Shakespeare
HER Productions, Unseemly Women & Girl Gang Manchester
Hope Mill, Manchester

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The Taming of The “Shrew” Credit: Shay Rowan
The Taming of The “Shrew” Credit: Shay Rowan
The Taming of The “Shrew” Credit: Shay Rowan
The Taming of The “Shrew’’ Credit: Shay Rowan
The Taming of The “Shrew’’ Credit: Shay Rowan
The Taming of The “Shrew’’ Credit: Shay Rowan

Certain plays considered classics present challenges for producers wishing to take account of the perceived sensitivities of modern-day theatregoers. Indeed, HER Productions, Unseemly Women & Girl Gang Manchester have gone so far as to put inverted commas around the word “Shrew” in the title The Taming of The “Shrew’’ as if to signpost they have reservations about using the term.

Directors Amy Gavin and Hannah Ellis Ryan set the play in Bella’s, a modern-day cabaret club. This is apparent upon entry to the theatre where the cast, in underwear and stockings, sorry, in character, mingle with the audience. The cast are fully committed to the cabaret concept—the dance pole in the centre of the stage is used extensively, even expertly.

An evening at Bella’s cabaret is disrupted by the drunken antics of patron Sly (Ciara Tansy). Upon realising there is an unhappy past relationship between Sly and Page (Shady Murphy), one of the dancers, the acts agree to teach the drunk a lesson by tricking him into believing his self-image is true—he is a rich lord and women are objects for his pleasure. The dancers take roles in, and enact, The Taming of The “Shrew’’, but as they are not professional actors, the burlesque background tends to intrude into the storytelling.

The cast are true to their profession as dancers rather than actors, so on occasion performances are, intentionally, comically over the top. Mia Gibson’s Sally hilariously writhes around on the floor in an exaggerated manner to demonstrate the extent of Lucentio’s devotion. Napkins are used to suggest beards. On a more serious note, the burlesque setting helps demonstrate the low esteem in which women are held in Padua, where events take place. This is a society where it is considered acceptable for a wedding reception to feature a pole dancer.

The framing sequence is both an asset and an indulgence. It resolves one of the challenges associated with the play by giving Page the chance to deliver Katherina’s closing speech not submissively to Sam (Emily Spowage), the dancer playing Petruchio, but as a snarling denunciation of Sly’s behaviour. In an inspired move, Emily Spowage shadows Sly, copying his body language to inform her interpretation of the role of Petruchio.

But the framing aspect complicates an already mirky plot in which people adopt disguises, so having characters take on different personas to perform in the play could be confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the text.

Directors Amy Gavin and Hannah Ellis Ryan are determined the audience should have a good time, so the play is full of jokes—thunder and lightning crash ominously whenever Katherina’s name is spoken. But the directors let the gags run on a bit to the extent the end of act one goes past an emotionally devastating point, where it becomes apparent to Katherina’s family and friends they are complicit in her sublimation and shaming, to conclude on a weaker note.

Typical of the theme of sisterhood which runs through the play, Katherina and her sister Bianca (Hope Yolanda) are not jealous rivals but close friends sharing a sly cigarette and mocking their father and suitors. Hope Yolanda is not submissive in the traditional way associated with the play, by being meek, but rather by conforming to the male fantasy image of women—an eye-popping dance to Kelis's “Milkshake”.

Physically, Emily Spowage’s, Petruchio is a dashing figure with flowing hair and a roguish moustache. The extent of the character’s manipulative behaviour becomes apparent in an almost surreal scene in act two where Petruchio’s servants are so cowed as to allow themselves to be used as furniture.

Shady Murphy is an excellent Katherina, her bitterness due more to the treatment of women in general than just her own circumstances. Pushed and squeezed into a wedding dress, she becomes representative of women forced to conform to an ideal image. Murphy shows the full emotional impact of enduring Petruchio’s manipulations, reciting her lines in a monotone like an abuse survivor or someone who has been brainwashed.

HER Productions, Unseemly Women & Girl Gang Manchester rise to the challenge of how to stage a play which is not currently popular with a production that, whilst radical and reflective, is always entertaining.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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