Royal Shakespeare Company
Matinee 28th January 2012
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen
The Taming of The Shrew has history due to the resounding problems of gender politics inherent in the Treat them mean, keep them keen story. It means it is one of the hardest plays to do in a contemporary setting, as the remove of a historical situation allows Petruchio to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a swaggering arsehole, but get his way in the end. In 21st century terms he’s a wife-abuser overdue for a restraining order. Nevertheless, the RSC has produced it thirteen times since 1960, and had produced it virtually every year from 1908 to 1944.
The 1967 Zefferelli film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was rich in background detail of late 16th century Italy which was hard to beat, and it looked as if mirrored their lives. My favourite was Patrick Sandford’s production at the Nuffield in Southampton, which must have been 1992. They kept the often-dropped opening “Induction” frame-story to hilarious effect and set it in the 18th century with foxhunting clothes. They revived it a few months later with virtually the same cast, except for a crucial detail. Jason Connery, son of Sean, was cast as Petruchio to get some more bums on seats. In spite of great support all round (including Martin Ball as Hortensio, later to feature in our ELT video, Double Identity), the big-name centrepiece just wasn’t as good as the original (whose name is lost in the net).
The Nuffield production used the induction, this 2012 one does so too, but even more so. Christopher Sly (the tinker who is deceived into believing he’s a lord) appears throughout, hanging around the peripheries of the set, and connecting scenes. It’s all great stuff, but you know (as so many producers did) that you can lose the whole Sly story with little loss to the play.
The entire set is a great big soft bed with bolster at the end, leading to a series of compartments concealing an Italian village scene. The whole is set in the late-1940s Italy of black and white films. We’re in Cinema Paradiso costumes, and that works perfectly. People roll and fall down the bolster between the village set and the main bed playing area. There’s a bed cover the size of the platform stage and between scenes Sly and the poor lad forced to dress up as the Lord’s wife chase and cavort under the cover.
The Taming of The Shrew is three plays. There’s the frame story about the drunken tinker, Sly, who awakes to find everyone treating him as a lord, and who then watches the “play.” The play itself has two strands … Petruchio and Katherine; and Bianca and her suitors, two of whom, end up disguised as tutors. The Bianco / Suitors story is standard Shakespearean comedy. It’s succeeded every time I’ve seen it. Hortensio and Gremio looked uncommonly similar to the same roles at the Nuffield twenty years earlier. They were very funny … but we agreed they were better at the earlier production.
Petruchio (David Caves) was very tall and younger than normal, and had a Northern Irish accent, as did his very short servant Grumio. Was Shakespeare paying attention when he had an effete and ageing suitor named Gremio, and a rough servant called Grumio in the same play?
Petruchio & Kate – she has just pretended to have hanged herself
Kate (Lisa Dillon) was a contrast: petite, sexy and feisty. The contrasting casting was a deliberate physical appearance factor. She was the best Kate I’ve ever seen … and I include the stellar film versions. Kate drank from a hip flask, smoked incessantly, puked in Petruchio’s face, and peeded standing upright in mid conversation. That was right in front of me, and the pee ran quickly across the playing area (soft, padded bed cover) and rolled straight onto two people in the front row, I was near enough to have been able to smell if it hadn’t been water. It was. I criticize smoking, and she smoked incessantly, but it all seemed totally necessary in character. Kate was the sort of girl who ends up vomiting in the gutter with her thonged bum pointing skywards on a Friday night in a market town near you. She was fantastic. She first appears in a scold’s halter, lead into the market place with a band, and once the halter is released attacks every male in sight, kicking bollocks and chopping necks with abandon.
Kate arrives in town
When she first appears with her sister Bianca, Bianca is trussed up and covered with clownish make up. There’s a great fight, ending with a chamber pot poured over Bianca (there’s a lot of pee in the play).
Kate on top of Bianca
The production scored every time on physical action, business, music and movement. Set too. As a result, lines were sacrificed. With the RSC you expect new light cast on well-known lines. Not here. In fact “The Lord” who opens the frame story instructing people to deceive Sly is an example of Shakespearean gabble … lines taken at maximum speed. The lines were affected by accent. Tranio looked wonderfully Italian, but I couldn’t detect what accent he was using. It was some weird hybrid. When Hortensio pretends to be the music tutor, he switches to an Italian accent to comic effect. Northern Irish sounds suitably aggressive for Petruchio and Grumio, but it adds a layer. The Pedant, pretending to be Lucentio’s father adopts a Godfather American tone. That was all interesting, but I don’t know that it helped the lines come through.
The RSC programme was as ever an example to every other theatre of how to do a programme, BUT if all your advertising; posters, flyers, programme cover, shows Petruchio with a small beard, why was he clean-shaven in the play?