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The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal Bath

David Caves (Petruchio) Lisa Dillon (Kate) Credit: Sheila Burnett
Lisa Dillon (Kate) Credit: Sheila Burnett
David Caves (Petruchio) Lisa Dillon (Kate) Credit: Sheila Burnett

“Brush up your Shakespeare”, advises two of the characters in Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s witty musical take on The Taming of the Shrew.

It’s advice I would commend to director Lucy Bailey whose production for the RSC of the original play is currently to be seen at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Bailey’s production, acclaimed when it opened in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year, has some real strengths including two strong leads in the excellent Lisa Dillon (Kate) and Robert Caves (Petruchio) and a real sense of fizz and mischief.

But I doubt if I could have been the only one present who found it all but unintelligible for considerable stretches, thanks to a combination of the use of both regional and assumed accents and a general inability to project the lines.

Much of this—the real exception was David Rintoul (Gremio), noticeably an old hand—could be put down to inexperience. But having seen Bailey’s work elsewhere—Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus at the Globe and Julius Caesar at Stratford—it would seem that she plays some part.

Her productions are characterised by a very strong visual design. Bailey undoubtedly creates productions that are exciting and popular. The night I saw Shrew the theatre looked close to full, compared with a near half-empty house for the Peter Hall productions of Henry IV Parts I and II here last year on the nights I saw them.

And, to be fair, it is a problem which bedevils more experienced directors than Bailey, as the execrable enunciation by the lead actors in the staging by Michael Boyd of Antony and Cleopatra for the RSC a few years back showed.

But to the play. The action is set in Italy in the 1940s, a setting, says Bailey, that allows some sense to be made of the fact that a woman who is unmarried, as Kate is at the start of the evening, is an anomaly, troubling.

It is also set on a giant bed running the length and breadth of the stage. The headboard, as it were, at the back has giant wooden doors studded with smaller openings which allow ingress, egress and sight into the action within.

As with Edward Hall’s Propeller productions, many of whose virtues and failings this show shares, there is live music from a band which adds a further level of fun. And Bailey opts to retain the framing prologue featuring Sly the Tinker, although I’m not convinced it adds significantly to the story proper.

The first issue facing any director is how they view the ‘taming’. Bailey makes clear that she sees the ending as positive for both Petruchio and Kate who, here, quickly strip and dive under the sheets at the end. “I think you have to imagine they’re going to have the best sex ever”, she notes in the programme.

I think we’re meant to conclude that the taming, which was recently staged by Propeller as nothing short of brutal, is much less punishing. When instructed at the end to fetch the other wives, Kate skips off stage as though none the worse for her treatment which included days and nights without food and sleep. But her impassioned defence of the need for wives to submit absolutely to their husbands still disturbs. Does she believe it? Apparently so. What are we to make of this? Petruchio isn’t a monster but is what he does monstrous?

For many in the audience I doubt this was of much matter. They enjoyed a genuine meeting of competitors, both Cave and Dillon lit up the stage and far from a problem play in Bailey’s hands it seemed like a companion piece to The Comedy of Errors full of sound and fury and signifying nothing except fun.

Reviewer: Pete Wood