Sunday, May 28, 2006

Stage Presence #4

“The Taming Of The Shrew”
by William Shakespeare
Bristol Old Vic, 27/05/2006

Bianca, the beautiful daughter of a rich Paduan merchant, seems fated for a single life, despite her many suitors. The problem is her sister Katherina, aka Kate the Cursed. At their father Baptiste’s insistence, Bianca cannot marry before her elder sibling. Despite Kate being Bianca’s equal in beauty, her independence and distrust of men mean that would-be husbands are non-existent. That is, until Petruchio arrives in Padua. Determined to secure a rich wife, he sets his sights on Katherina and proceeds to “tame” her. Meanwhile, another new arrival in town, Lucentio, has fallen in love with Bianca and contrives to win her away from rival suitors, Hortensio and Gremio. The play follows the deceptions, disguises, disasters and degradations that befall these characters, and examines how much people are willing to change who they are in order to gain society’s acceptance.

“The Taming Of The Shrew” is, on the surface, a incredibly misogynistic narrative, focusing on Katherina’s will being completely subordinated to Petruchio’s, following a series of humiliations inflicted on her by her new husband. It can be argued that Petruchio himself endures that same degradation as his “Kate”, starving both his wife and himself of food, sleep and rational behaviour in the name of love. However, director Anne Tipton uses her production to comment on the roles that people are prepared to play for an ‘easy life’. The contemporary setting of this production only emphasises society’s continued role-playing today. Tipton includes Shakespeare’s prologue, which I understand is often omitted from productions, but in this case proves to be essential to placing the narrative that follows in context. In this Induction, drunkard Christopher Sly is found unconscious by a group of City workers, who decide to convince him that he is in fact a rich Lord, amnesiac following a long illness. Securing the services of actors and placing the man in a classy townhouse apartment, Sly is at first bewildered by his change of circumstances. However, seeing the advantages of his new position, Sly quickly accepts his new role and settles down to watch the evening’s entertainment. At this point, “The Taming Of The Shrew” becomes a play within a play, and therefore even more clearly a fiction, not to be taken seriously. Given that Shakespeare has tackled such an uncomfortable subject as a comedy, I think the absence of this prologue would have a significant impact on the audience’s perspective.

Typically, the play almost immediately becomes more complicated, as key characters are introduced and proceed to adopt different identities. The lovestruck Lucentio asks his manservant Tranio to take his place, whilst he disguises himself as the schoolmaster Cambio in order to woo Bianca. Hortensio, one of his rivals for Bianca’s affections, follows the same plan, entering the household as music tutor Litio. Meanwhile, Tranio (as Lucentio) has promised a large dowry for Bianca, in order to defeat further rival Gremio. Tranio is forced to find someone willing to pose as Lucentio’s father Vincentio in order to cement the deal with Bianca’s father Baptiste. This identity swapping inevitably leads to highly comical sequences, particularly those involving Tranio and the ersatz Vincentio. Elsewhere, Petruchio poses as a uncouth boor, humiliating Katherina at their wedding with an unkempt appearance and drunken antics, not to mention his post-wedding subjugation of her will. Despite Katherina’s initial, spirited defiance, Petruchio’s relentless conditioning has it’s desired effect. Kate - as Petruchio insists on addressing her - slowly adopts her new persona, to the extent that she accepts that the sun is the moon, if her husband insists it is so. This transformation climaxes at Bianca and Lucentio’s wedding, where Petruchio wagers that Kate is a more obedient wife than either Bianca or the widow that the defeated Hortensio has given himself to. Sure enough, to the surprise of the gathering, Petruchio easily wins the bet. Kate then goes on to deliver a monologue, which seems to suggest that a wife should be obedient to “thy husband…thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”. This speech closes with Kate’s suggestion that a wife’s place is effectively with “hand below husband’s foot.”, as she supplicates herself before Petruchio. Petruchio’s reaction – to take his wife’s hand rather than heel it, before kissing her – suggests that he is not quite the bastard that he has been portraying himself as. Not only has Kate won her husband’s admiration, but seemingly that of her peers, a hitherto unlikely prospect. I liked the way that Tipton refuses to baulk from, what in today’s society, could be an unsettling narrative. In addition to Shakespeare’s explicit comedy, Tipton mines further humour by exposing the ridiculous attitudes of some of his characters. This has the advantage of tackling issues head on, but also provides the audience with an opportunity to make their own minds up about Shakespeare’s intentions for the characters and their actions.

There are strong performances from all of the cast, who enliven this production no end. Flora Montgomery and Richard Dillane make an engaging Kate and Petruchio: Montgomery expertly managing the transformation of her character from “shrew” to obedient wife; Dillane likewise balances borderline sadism with a passion that makes Petruchio’s behaviour clearer, if not forgivable. Samuel Roukin is excellent as Tranio, adopting a hilarious Loyd Grossman-esque enunciation when posing as his master Lucentio. A special mention also for veteran actor Geoffrey Beevers. Opening proceedings as the drunkard Christopher Sly, Beevers has the additionally challenging role of hapless suitor Gremio, whose character has neither the youth or cunning of his rivals Hortensio, Lucentio and Tranio. With relatively fewer sequences to play with, Beevers delivers memorable performances in both roles. In what is increasingly becoming a given with Old Vic productions, the creative team excel in stage design, lighting and music. Less typical is the striking choreography, which borders on the balletic at times and infuses the characters with an interaction and energy that matches the production as a whole.

“The Taming Of The Shrew” is a potential disaster, if mishandled. Rest assured, there are no concerns with Anne Tipton’s confident, thought provoking, often hilarious, always downright entertaining production.

(photo: Marcus Ginns)
Posted by Picasa


Blogger Atom Boy said...

Hi bro,

It's one of the few Shakespeare plays that I've neither read nor seen performed. I don't know why, but I've never been keen on the comedies. It's strange because when moments of humour crop up in other plays, old Will can have me rolling around on the floor.

It's not only Shakespeare, though. I'm fairly ambivalent about contemporary British comedy, too. Farce more often than not leaves me cold, so that rules out about 75% of British comic dramas and movies for me.

4:05 am  
Blogger Khayem said...

In my case, I've seen few Shakespeare plays and read even fewer! :-)

My earliest memories of farce are limited to Brian Rix running around in crap TV comedies and Judd Nelson's character in "The Breakfast Club" sarcastically proclaiming that 'Moliere really pumps my nads', so it could only get better, in my opinion!

I can think of at least three farces that I've seen on stage in last year or so - The Comedy Of Errors, Otherwise Engaged and, most recently, Present Laughter - that I've really enjoyed, though I agree that they often don't translate well to the small or big screen.

6:21 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home