The Taming Of The Shrew is one of those Shakespeare plays that has the reputation of being 'difficult'. As with Othello or Merchant Of Venice, four hundred years on, there are new challenges. And in Shrew, that means looking at a story in which a woman with a reputation of being difficult and speaking her mind, is psychologically manipulated, using lies, tricks and what is now known as gaslighting, to become a meek, submissive woman, who teaches other wives to be so succumbing to their husbands.
There is a multitude of methods to approaching the play. You can go balls to the wall and present it as a classic, unsubtle version of the original, full of the misogyny from the original and present it to the audience, warts and all.
You can look for greater subtlety. Is what Katrina does a survival mechanism, showing her realisation that she is trapped in this role? Or is it part of the playfulness between a husband and a wife, meant to be self-deprecatory and self-mocking? Or has she indeed been brainwashed by Petrochio, her fate reinterpreted as a tragedy? Or is this bit an edifice of the play within a play, demonstrated as a piece of propaganda aimed at the sole audience member, a drunkard beggar who is being convinced by the court – and by this play – that he is indeed a lord.
The current production performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where Shakespeare's own purpose-built theatre once stood, seems to capture the worst of both worlds.
It begins with multiple actors taking multiple parts, addressing members of the audience individually, letting the audience participate in the play, breaking script for a director to comment on its length, and more. Through the play, Shakespeare is pushed aside for TS Eliot in several places. And as actors switch from one role to another, including gender, this mirrors the play-within-a-play aspect of the original. But it doesn't follow this through, instead going for the unsubtle take on the play's ending, played straight and without room for interpretation, also refusing to go back to the play-within-a-play aspect where it began.
As a result, we get a play that annoys us for not sticking with the script in places and then annoys us further for, well, sticking to the script. Not that the production is without charms, the use of three levels of stage, in amongst and around the audience is beautifully choreographed. The use of candles as natural light throughout, lighting the wooden beams and bridges creates a very engaging atmosphere. Costumes are gorgeous, and the wedding dress is designed to be destroyed and transformed in a very engaging fashion.
But Katrina, played by Melissa Riggall on the night I went, (the cast also switch roles between shows) seems to simper rather than be shrew-like, there's far too much shouting than acting of lines from the cast. The most interesting transformation as the play ran through, was Italian actor Mattia Mariotti playing Petruchio's old servant Grumio with the strongest of accents, and the least subtle of delivery, became out last best hope for entertainment, a Henning Wehn-type figure, wide-eyed innocent, stumbling across the humour in certain lines as if by accident.
But accident is what this production comes across as. It wasn't so much planned as just… happened. And the audience was unfortunate enough for it to have happened to them. Nice candles though. But rather than this, go and see Harley Quinn at the BFI IMAX down the road for a more thought-through presentation of the issues within… or pop over the Wobbly Bridge and go up to see Upstart Crow at the Gielgud, which does a great number on Othello. Or maybe go and see Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women on the same stage later/earlier in the day, depending.
The Taming Of The Shrew plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until the 18th April.
Katharina and Bianca, the daughters of a rich man of Padua, are ready to marry. The game is simple: the youngest can be won only if the eldest finds her equal. But Katharina is strong-willed and not afraid to challenge the rules. Who will be able to rival her? The hunt is on.
Accompanied by live music and song in the unique and intimate setting of the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, The Taming of the Shrew questions the essence of Man and Woman, the feminine and the masculine, and searches for answers in the realm of the wondrous.
In an exciting and experimental production, roles for The Taming of the Shrew are to be played by different company members at different performances.