November 9, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
The Taming Of The Shrew (Propeller) @ The Courtyard Theatre
Yet another transport problem last night, as the line between Hatton and Stratford caused our train to be delayed by over half an hour. Thankfully we still managed to get in for the first line of the play, so didn’t miss anything apart from milling around in the foyer for a while!
Propeller, tonight’s visiting company, are an all-male Shakespeare ensemble, so this play, so concerned with gender, was a natural choice. What I hadn’t expected, however, was the darkest ‘Shrew’ I’ve ever experienced.
The start of the play saw Sly as a drunken guest at a wedding, while everyone waited for the bride. As he fell into an embarrassing drunken stupor, the other guests took it on themselves to play their trick on him. The Sly framework became important though, as after the first scene, Sly lept up to congratulate the players, who put a jacket on him and gave him a script, to his confusion. As the play restarted, he began to hesitantly read Petruchio’s lines, becoming more and more confident until he threw away the script and became the central player.
The first half was hysterical- Propeller’s style is one of physical comedy, the actors making excellent use of the stage and movement to create a constantly flowing, fast and very original production. Costume styles ranged from the near-Elizabethan to fishnets for Kate, and the general feeling was one of irreverent fun.
As the play progressed, though, we started to feel a little more uncomfortable. Kate was, for a Kate, relatively quietly-spoken. She lashed out from time to time, but always seemed deeply sad- and never smiled once in the entire production. At the wedding the focus was on her being left by her husband, and the moment where she entreated Petruchio, “If you love me, stay”, was shockingly tender. As the second act progressed, the taming became increasingly violent, and one truly disquieting moment happened after the massively energetic and violent tailor scene which left Kate cowering in fear, huddle against at wall. Petruchio lay behind her and put his arm round her, and she tentatively clutched onto his arm in fear.
The discomfort mounted as it became increasingly apparent that the taming was not a two-way thing, not a game to be played. Even when describing Vincentio as a girl, Kate was speaking out of fear and resignation, rather than (as usual) a sense of learning to play the game. As the tricks surrounding Lucentio and Bianca came to a messy end with everyone leaving via seperate doors, and Petruchio forced Kate to kiss him, the final scene opened in awkwardness and forced celebration, everyone standing apart. Kate, still in her tattered and muddy wedding dress, stood cowed as she gave her famous speech, only getting passionate when saying, “Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare”. We had watched while Petruchio had turned Kate into an abused and downtrodden wife- and yet Lucentio and Hortensio were still jealous of him.
So, uncomfortable viewing, and an excellent use of comedy to draw us unsuspectingly into a compromised situation. It was interesting to see how the hysterical laughter of the audience gradually became less and less to the occasional titter by the end, and as we left the theatre we were all wondering if we had actually just seen a comedy.
This was a production I could happily talk for hours about, though the important thing for this entry seems to be their treatment of the subject matter. It was a fantastic production full of colour and invention, and music in particular played a central role, including a wonderful barbershop song at the start of the second act. Fast, funny and ultimately very powerful.