The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Propeller
The Lyceum, Sheffield

The Taming of the Shrew Credit: Philip Tull

Propeller Company, (artistic director Ed Hall) made a welcome return to Sheffield this week with an exciting production of The Taming of the Shrew. Propeller is committed to presenting Shakespeare’s plays ‘with great clarity, speed and full of as much imagination in the staging as possible’.

The Shrew has a complicated plot, with a large number of initially indistinguishable retainers and characters who disguise themselves. Hall achieves ‘great clarity’ in introducing the characters and the complexities of the plot by the use of verbal and physical emphasis, and significant pauses. The production races along, and is bursting with imagination, with moments of silence and rest that are often heavy with significance.

Despite the wonderful comic sequences, this is an uncompromising play. Petruchio turns up in Padua determined to ‘wive it wealthily’, and when he hears about the shrewish Katherine and her large dowry, sets about ‘taming’ her. This process takes the form of what modern psychologists would call ‘behaviour shaping’, and includes physical and mental cruelty, humiliation and ruthless domination, none of which sit very comfortably at a time when the press is full of horror stories about the maltreatment of women and young girls.

A helpful programme note reminds us that this is a play very much of its time, when women had few if any rights, and were expected to be compliant, obedient and effectively their husband’s chattel. Aberrations from this norm were ‘common themes in folklore and popular drama’, bringing to mind Mrs Noah in the Medieval Mystery Cycle, and the use of the scold’s bridle. ‘Perhaps part of the shrew taming is a growing-up process; Kate’s final speech reflects what a woman needs to say about her role in a particular society’. In other words, she is required to conform to the male expectations of the time.

Hall’s production has cleverly adapted the opening scenes of the play to provide a distancing device. A drunken Christopher Sly bursts into a wedding and wrecks it, then falls into a swinish sleep. When he wakes up he is gulled into thinking he is a lord, and persuaded to play the shrew tamer in a play within the play; a waking dream, perhaps, or a bit of wish fulfilment. But nothing can soften the trajectory of the play that Shakespeare has written, and the company plays it up to the hilt.

Vince Leigh, (Sly and Petruchio) is a strutting, thrusting braggadocio, particularly delightful when he makes the audience complicit in his outrageous behaviour. Dan Wheeler gives a stunning and beautifully modulated performance as Katherine, aggressive and uncontrollable in the opening scenes, and gradually diminished and humbled as the play progresses. Her realisation of how far she has to go to comply with Petruchio’s expectations is signalled by her exhausted response in the sun/moon sequence towards the end of the play. 'Then, God be blessed, it is the blessed sun./ But, sun it is not, when you say it is not.' In this production there is no compromise from Petruchio. When she places her hand on the floor before him, he treads on it.

The secondary plot, involving Katherine’s sister Bianca and her three suitors, allows plenty of opportunity for entertaining characterisation and rib-tickling comic business. Arthur Wilson is a very pretty Bianca, knees always firmly pressed together, and, apparently, the epitome of acceptable female behaviour. There are enough hints in the earlier scenes to suggest she is not as sweet as she seems, so her conduct after the obedience test does not come as a complete surprise and suggests trouble to come.

Every member of this ensemble cast seizes the moment to explore the comic potential of his role, however small the part. John Dougall is a lecherous old Gremio who stutters explosively when lusting after Bianca; Liam O’Brian is a quick-witted servant who expands nicely into his secondary role disguised as his master; and Christopher Heyward has a lot of fun with the small but entertaining part of the offended Tailor.

The mirrored set is symbolic and highly adaptable (designer Michael Pavelka) and the costumes are a delight and a rich source of humour. This is fast paced, inventive and hugely imaginative production, full of entertaining comic business, but also thought provoking.

The production is on tour in UK and abroad until 20 July.

Reviewer: Velda Harris