The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario
to

Deborah Hay as Katherina and Ben Carlson as Petruchio Credit: David Hou
Mike Shara (left) as Hortensio, Sarah Afful as Bianca and Cyrus Lane as Lucentio Credit: David Hou
Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina (centre) with members of the company Credit: David Hou

On a deep thrust stage with a period band for accompaniment, director Chris Abraham sets out his stall for this 2½-hour production before allowing Shakespeare to get even a single word in.

Instead, a modern metatheatrical musing at the start of a performance first seen in 2015 introduces viewers into a world built upon artifice and traditional costume, before a 17th-century song contemplates some of the significant themes that are to follow.

The pre-Shakespearean fun isn’t over, as this company’s postmodern version of the rarely used Christopher Sly framing proves to be a hilarious warm-up act, thanks to the comic skills of Ben Carlson, who has other fish to fry as proceedings unfold.

In the role of Katherina, Deborah Hay instantly establishes the character as shrewish and quite fearsomely so, while never underplaying the independent lady’s quick wit. By way of contrast, her younger sister Bianca, played by Sarah Afful, may be “beautiful” but is also haughty and even a little bland.

As a long line of suitors, mostly in disguise with Cyrus Lane and Tom Rooney playing Lucentio and Tranio or vice versa in the vanguard, fall over themselves to woo Bianca, the young ladies’ weary father lays down a seemingly unsurmountable condition that she can only marry after feisty Katherina.

While genteel men flee, re-enter Carlson, now playing larger-than-life, genial Petruchio who, for reasons of his own, takes a fancy to the Shrew (young, beauteous and, more importantly, rich) and decides to tame and marry her.

The evening hits top gear during the initial meeting between this couple, in which both actors (married in real life) clearly have a fine old time during a pitched battle that is not only verbal but dramatically physical and packed with enough wit to make viewers laugh out loud.

What must once have been a simple comedy reflecting the mores of the times has become a problem play in the age of feminism and even more so with the advent of the #MeToo movement. Bravely, Chris Abraham has stuck to his guns and, while injecting much clowning, treats the ethos of the play seriously and traditionally. This may offend some viewers, since the sight of a wife being “broken” by her new husband will shock today’s generally more egalitarian society.

However, it is fascinating to note that, at the end of a harsh regimen that comes close to slavery, the happy couple, brilliantly portrayed by Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay, appear genuinely happy.

While many productions of The Taming of the Shrew have stuck more closely to the original Shakespearean text, few can have been more fun than this delightful new vision of an old favourite.

If you are unable to catch the free stream, which ends on 6 August, the production is available to rent or buy and there is plenty more top-quality Shakespeare to enjoy via the Stratford Festival web site.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher