December 9, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ The Shakespeare Institute
This is, without a doubt, the best value for money I have ever had for a play. Five pounds, which included three and a half glasses of wine. I can only hope professional companies take note…
The main charm of the Shakespeare Institute Players’ production of The Taming of the Shrew is the informal and relaxed atmosphere. With the hall of the Institute dressed up as a tavern, guests sat around three sides of the room with wine glasses, pretzels and candles. Actors mingled freely with the small audience, creating an intimate and friendly environment that set the mood for the evening. This was a student production, directed and performed by MA, MPhil and PhD students at the Shakespeare Institute, with no pretensions whatsoever.
The induction, set in a pub, saw the host taking the part of the Lord, having a joke at the expense of the drunken customer asleep at his table, Sly. The induction was one of the production’s strongest elements, the informality of the setting adding to the enjoyment as the landlord and his regulars laughed at their own attempts to confuse Sly. Sara Thompson’s Sly was unfazed, removing her belt as she chased Jay Glazer’s ludicrously dragged-up page around the stage. It provided a riotous prelude to the main action, a pace mostly maintained throughout the production.
The cast were generally solid. An abundance of women (only Petruchio, Germio and Curtis/The Tailor were played by males) and Americans (Petruchio, Kate, Hortensio, Baptista, Lucentio, Tranio and Grumio!) made for an interesting line-up, and the focus was placed firmly on ensemble performance, with the company clearly enjoying working together.
Kate and Petruchio dominated the action, with excellent performances from both Sara Thompson and Brian Willis (doubling respectively as Sly and the Lord, echoing the playfulness of the Lord’s initial trick on Sly). In an interesting departure from the usual business of the play, Kate was subdued throughout, her sullenness stemming from what appeared to be loneliness, boredom and depression rather than ‘shrewishness’. She was highly intelligent, easily defeating Gremio in a draughts match, and despised the attention-seeking of her younger sister. Petruchio was likewise far calmer than is often portrayed, and from the start was unafraid to show genuine affection towards Kate, his bluffness towards Baptista and the other suitors being a front rather than his true nature. The ‘taming’ therefore took on an air of therapy rather than repression. Petruchio’s tactics remained harsh, but not necessarily cruel, and the result was to draw Katherine out of her sullenness and into an attitude that allowed her to laugh and engage with her husband. Rather than becoming more beaten down, as in the Propeller production last year, she became happier throughout. This was, by and large, The Cheering-Up of the Shrew. The final speech, ever difficult to pull off in the modern theatre, was here a game, a test she went through, and Petruchio was drawn to her throughout, embracing her tenderly as she ended, the couple clearly equal in love.
Emily Burden’s Bianca was a delightful trollop, gagging for a husband and linking her legs over both Lucentio and Hortensio during the tutor scene. Spoiled and superficial, she was one of the comic highlights, particularly as she pretended to cry in order to get her father’s sympathy. Hers and Lucentio’s relationship quickly became an overtly sexual one, Hortensio watching wistfully on as the two fell all over each other.
Elsewhere there was plenty of good comic work. The hysterical fake moustaches and beards of Baptista and the Pedant; the mournful face of the Hostess as Sly unwittingly accused her of being fat; the ongoing witterings of Tranio, played excellently by Kristin Hall; the removal of Vincentio by the Officers, keeping her hanging in mid-air for much of the scene as Vincentio railed at his unfaithful servants. Additional nice touches, such as the distribution of Gremio’s wealth to the audience with comic footnotes (“Turkey cushions – the country, not the bird” etc.), and the stuffed dog which Petruchio jealously kept under his arm in the country, added to the irreverent feel.
It’s true that not all the performances were wonderful and, although the play maintained a good pace, it could have benefitted from a little trimming. To quibble, though, is to miss the spirit of this production- here, there was no shame in being amateur and no attempt to be something it wasn’t. It judged the space and the audience ideally and provided a fun romp through the production that bypassed the darker issues usually associated with the play and instead gave us a thoroughly enjoyable reading of the text. A fun show.
I like pub theatre Shakespeare for exactly the reasons you outlined above. Sometimes a young inexperienced cast in awe of the text does just a good a job as a more experienced company. You certainly get enthusiasm by the bucket load, which can often compensate for a lack of McKellan-level skill. Also, less well-publicised venues and productions attract ‘professional’ Shakespeare fans so you get a better behaved audience!