May 28, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Taming of the Shrew (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Irish director Conall Morrison made waves in Stratford last year with his violently explicit production of Macbeth, a flawed but compelling show that demonstrated his fascination with sexual abuse and the blurring of lines between dark comedy and outrage. It is little surprise, then, that this uncompromising director has been invited back to Stratford to helm the RSC’s new Shrew, a play which has allowed him to explore these fascinations further in another production that will no doubt stimulate great debate.

The elongated modern-day induction set the tone for the relentless visual and aural assault that lasted throughout the play, throwing the audience immediately into a lads-night-out in the city, with banging house music, traffic cones, mooning and a parody of the All-Blacks’ pre-match haka. The female characters, a leather-clad Hostess and a pole-dancer, added to the barrage of sexist stereotypes: this was a world seen through the misogynist eyes of the drunken Christopher Sly, stumbling through the scene.

A great amount of off-text story was added to the induction, with the Hostess making a garbled phone call to the Lady (the part played female), as a result of which the Lady ordered the drunken Sly to be picked out of the trash and carried home. This set up implied the trick was to be a kind of punishment/rehabilitation for Sly’s treatment of the Hostess, a trick which the Lady continued to oversee throughout, occasionally appearing on stage in order to cue a lighting change or similar. Sly himself was introduced into the action to play Petruchio, starting with a script but quickly discarding it and making the play his own. This caused problems however, in that it was never clear quite what the purpose of the inner play was meant to be. Far from being educational, Sly gradually took over the play, building in his violent attitudes and taking it to a dark place from which, at the very end, the players withdrew in disgust. Quite why Sly had been allowed into a position where he could act out his misogynist fantasies was inexplicable.

Confused framing device aside, the inner play was busy, full of interest and often very funny. A backdrop of swivelling panels depicted Padua and the players (who had appeared out of the back of a truck with the number-plate XME-K8) built a set out of micro-sized Italian buildings, donned renaissance costumes and hammed it up gloriously with performances so pantomimic that the audience was carried along by the party atmosphere.

It was interesting to see that the emphasis on knockabout comedy and farce, (the programme indicated a debt to the commedia dell’arte) pushed several of the supporting roles, such as Hortensio, Gremio and Tranio, into far greater prominence. Drawing inspiration from silent movies and Hollywood swashbucklers, the various suitors circled each other when they met, declaiming their threats with dastardly pomp. Sean Kearns as Hortensio was particularly strong in this respect, almost a villain with his deep voice and narrowed eyes. Lucentio, by contrast, was the ‘hero’ of the piece, the orchestra playing a swelling theme to accompany his heroic stance as he gazed into the distance after the receding Bianca – no cliché went unused. Most amusing were the accents adopted by characters as they disguised themselves to further their plans. Lucentio became Welsh and Hortensio became Northern, but Keir Charles’ Tranio stole the show as the fake Lucentio with a ludicrously false and exaggerated plummy London gent accent so bad that every time he opened his mouth he drew all attention onto himself. This was only topped for gusto by Larrington Walker who, as a black English Pedant, reverted to a shocking Jamaican stereotype when pretending to be Vincentio, which Biondello and Tranio were then forced to adopt in turn. Horribly un-PC, but the energy and sheer ridiculousness of what we were witnessing earned Walker a spontaneous round of applause from a delighted audience.

Subtlety was not a factor here. Bianca, played by Amara Khan, was another male fantasy figure, the demure yet slyly sexual girl in a pink dress with overspilling cleavage that Lucentio couldn’t keep his eyes off. Upon finally coming together, any pretence at romance was dismissed and the two engaged in a distasteful and unfunny montage of sexual positions just offstage while Hortensio and Tranio withdrew their stakes. Biondello drew most of his laughs from a habit of running into walls and the real Vincentio, played by the elderly Leonard Fenton, shrugged off the officers who tried to arrest him by suddenly turning into a casual martial arts expert and throwing the officers across the stage. It was crude and occasionally offensive, but all conducted with an unabashed enthusiasm and shamelessness that saved the show.

Against this farcical backdrop was set Petruchio and Kate’s story, which took a very different tone. Michelle Gomez’s Kate was an isolated and hurt figure, who lashed out at her father for lavishing his attention on Bianca. Her extreme violence to the men around her came across as a response to what she perceived as neglect. Petruchio, meanwhile, was a more sophisticated version of Sly, walking with a pronounced swagger. Their first meeting instantly declared how the relationship would develop. Kate reacted violently to Petruchio’s words, and Petruchio responded through physical restraint. However much she kicked and struggled, Petruchio repeatedly overpowered her and bore her down. Gomez in particular excelled here. Her face showed genuine panic and fear when restrained and helpless, but as soon as she broke free she reverted to her usual defence mechanisms of violence and withering put-downs. Petruchio remained calm throughout, breaking down her strength as he physically forced himself upon her. The struggle of a woman to maintain the independent strength so important to her was a powerful one.

Kate’s attempts to test the limits of Petruchio’s patience were repeatedly rebuffed. In a rare moment of on-stage quiet, Kate asked him to stay for the wedding dinner “If you love me”. The onlookers on stage fell deadly silent as they watched Petruchio slowly walk towards her as if to kiss her, before pulling away at the final moment and robbing her of even a small victory. Upon removal to the country his cruelty worsened, leaving Kate crawling faintly on the floor in a dirty smock. The treatment was mirrored in Petruchio’s appalling violence towards Grumio, an excellent and disturbed Will Beck, who was often left bleeding or vomiting on the floor after Petruchio’s attacks. The abuse of Kate was upsetting and Morrison, so keen to provoke elsewhere, pulled no punches in getting his message across. Petruchio’s treatment of his wife was simply cruel and abhorrent.

The final famous speech delivered before the dinner party began calmly, but as Kate continued she became more tired and defeated-looking, a shadow of her former self. Petruchio then kissed her forcibly, but she didn’t respond and instead simply went limp. This horrible sight impacted far more than her words, and was immediately followed up to its extreme. As the play drew to its close, Petruchio then laid Kate down on the floor and started undressing himself while she lay still unresponsive. This moment, bordering on rape, became too much, and the players finally broke out of their performance, pushing Sly off the actress playing Kate and packing up the entire set, removing it back into their truck. Sly himself had his robes removed and was left alone onstage, almost naked and shivering (an ending lifted, along with several other elements of the show, from Propeller’s 2006 production.

This deeply uncomfortable ending, while on one level showing Petruchio receive a sort of comeuppance by losing his lordly title, threw up several problems. Why was Petruchio allowed to steer events so far? Why did the actors only intervene at this stage, rather than earlier in the abuse of Kate? Why did the Lady’s household all go with the players into their truck? And was Kate meant to be an actress, the Hostess of the induction or a real ‘Kate’? The framing device in many ways spoiled the play, raising several awkward questions about the nature of the inner play as a performance that weren’t addressed by the director.

This was a shame, as the inner play in itself was an interesting and sometimes insightful piece that demonstrated, by negative example, the evils of domestic abuse while also providing moments of enjoyable and riotous comedy. The performers put in an enormous amount of hard work and energy, and were rewarded by an extremely appreciative audience who laughed throughout. It had serious problems, but those problems are ripe for ongoing discussion and didn’t take away from the fact that it was an entertaining three hours in the theatre.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review