Saturday, January 20, 2007

Theatre Review : The Taming of the Shrew - Propeller Theatre Company - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall - 15/01/07)

Shakespeare was not a 21st Century liberal. His attitudes to women (or to Jews for that matter) were those of the 17th Century, and thus can be disturbing to a modern audience. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in The Taming of the Shrew. No amount of justification (such as the supposition that Shakespeare's marriage to Ann Hathaway was an unhappy one, forced upon him after a youthful indiscretion) can hide the fact that this is a brutally misogynistic play.

Modern productions seek to soften this aspect by playing Petruchio with a smile behind his antics, as he and Kate gain mutual respect through enacting a complex game. Not so here. Petruchio is a bully. A strutting screaming, hair-pulling, arm-twisting physical and psychological bully. The fact that is a play performed within the Christopher Sly framing device cannot soften it. This is the story of one man's total subjugation of a woman. It is quite brutal, and the fact that Kate is played by a man only just about makes the violence bearable. When Katherine gives her speech about the duty of a wife towards the end, her eyes are dead: she has been cowed. She kisses Petruchio, not through love but through duty.

This sounds quite grim, but in fact it isn't. The first half especially is exceptionally funny, the wedding scene in particular. Drunks are always amusing until one can see what they are capable of. Even in the second half, there is sufficient good humour and, this being Propeller, inspired stagework to keep a leavening element of comedy - Jason Baughan slipping out of his role of Gremio for a magnificent cameo as drunken pedant being particularly amusing.

The cast excels as an ensemble, but the two leads are particularly powerful. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Petruchio struts and preens like Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer, flicking in an instant from genial bonhomie to manic forcefulness. One thinks of a supercharismatic character with a powerful, engaging personality that one is drawn to despite knowing that he is a brute. Simon Scardifield as Kate, on the other hand, transforms from a sullen, sparky renegade to a dead-eyed zombie.

This is brilliant theatre - funny, engaging yet thought-provoking and deeply, deeply disturbing. Edward Hall has resisted the temptation to soften his Shrew for a modern audience. Instead he has stripped Shakespeare bare, looked domestic violence squarely in the face and delivered an entirely uncompromising play for the 21st Century.

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