The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe
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This is a difficult play for modern performance because of its gender issues, this tale of a sharp-tongued virago called Katherina being bullied into submission by Petruchio, a man whose interest is in the wealth that comes with her. Its comedy is based on outdate attitudes. Some have tried single-sex casting or swapped the sex of roles to attempt solutions to the problem or to point the finger at male behaviour. For this production, director Maria Gaitanidi seems to have decided to ignore the surface misogyny and try digging beneath it to find something else there.

In rehearsal, work began with no one knowing whom they would be cast as, exploring possibilities. What effect that has had is not particularly evident but what is much more noticeable is what appears to be an attempt to extend the theatre’s intimacy to everyone in it. Liam Bunster’s design adds extra structures of a bridge, steps, platforms and ladders that enable the actors to climb to the level of the upper galleries in an elegant kind of scaffolding. I don't know how much it helped upstairs, but from down in the pit it masked faces for some of the play’s most important speeches. With actors always staying in and around the space if not actually on stage, it certainly heightened the sense of a shared experience.

The production keeps the whole of the Christopher Sly Induction that Shakespeare uses to introduce the touring actors who will perform a play within the play but, while Michelle Terry briefly becomes a script-holding stage manager / director, it doesn’t sustain the idea so a protracted and unfunny episode seems there to little purpose. Perhaps it is kept to help establish that what we watch is performance, perhaps a performance of attitudes, being what people expect rather than genuine feeling.

Is Sly (James Northcote) supposed to then be made to play Lucentio, who falls in love with Katherina’s younger sister Bianca? Does Evelyn Miller’s Lord, who commissions the performance from the players, join them to play Bianca? Mattia Mariotti begins as one of the actors pretending to be Sly’s wife and told to stay by him, but then confusingly alternates between Lucentio’s servant Tranio (with whom he later swaps places) and Petruchio’s man Grumio. They are all played in exactly the same way with a heavy accent and a rather halting, exotic delivery. With everyone except the two leads doubling, those who don’t know the text may find it confusing.

The play could be seen to present attitudes to love, to marriage and to gender roles. Economic advantage, romantic attraction, familial affection, women valued for the wealth that comes with them, erotic satisfaction, family duty and rebellion against accepted roles are all there. Gaitanidi doesn’t impose any modern viewpoint or justification for the play’s misogyny but the production blunts it by making some of Petruchio’s worst treatment of Katherina mimed rather than actual, though this isn’t consistent: imaginary meat he denies her but a real hat and new dress.

Melissa Riggall’s Katherine is remarkably restrained—this isn’t a girl who smashes the place up—and she delivers her now-controversial final speech telling women to kowtow to their husbands with a straight face. Paul Ready’s strong-voiced Petruchio talks as though he is just after what she is worth, but what are these two actually up to? Back from church, at their wedding reception, they perform a lively dance, but why does Petruchio start to put on some of her clothes?

Evelyn Miller’s Bianca is more centred than Katherina; she has an authority that perhaps comes from being played by the Lord, but this doesn’t seem like a dutiful daughter who would let her sister being single hold up her own plans. There is another very straightforward performance from Ryan Ellsworth as Hortensio, one of Bianca’s suitors, who finally plumps for a widow, a brief final cameo for Terry.

Some pleasant songs have been inserted. They are not in English so I don’t know how appropriately. To insert one immediately before Katherina delivers that speech about female obedient seems an odd choice and they slow down the action of a performance that stretches to three hours plus interval.

This is a Shrew devoid of fireworks and not very funny. The actors do hold the attention but this is a long evening that produces little enlightenment. Casting will vary between performances, actors may be playing different roles from the ones they did on press night and then will perhaps give a different perspective and a different emphasis.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton