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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Taming of the Shrew

No shame but mine: I must, forsooth, be forced
To give my hand opposed against my heart
Unto a mad-brain rudesby full of spleen;
Who woo'd in haste and means to wed at leisure.
— Katharina
The Taming of the Shrew
Michelle Gomez as Katherina and Stephen Boxer as Petruchio
(Photo: Simon Annand)
Conall Morrison's production of The Taming of the Shrew takes Shakespeare's play with an unacceptable message about the rights of women and repackages it for the twenty first century. Setting The Shrew in its Christopher Sly context, the play within the play is presented as just that, a play designed for Christopher Sly (Stephen Boxer) to act in as Petruchio. Does that make The Taming of the Shrew Sly's fantasy on where he would like to be in relation to the fairer sex? The Sly play opens in a seedy part of a city with rowdies and prostitutes at play. The players arrive by the lorry load and many aged actors fall out of an impressively and realistically designed pantechnicon, greeting the intended audience with the effusive language of Luvvies or chorusing their lines for dramatic effect. The unconscious Sly had been placed in a palatial room the night before in a heart shaped red velvet bed. The pranksters talk of hawking in the context of the hunt as Sly spits out phlegm in quite another meaning of hawking.

Taking the theme of the commedia dell'arte which may have influenced Shakespeare, there is clowning in the first act with much being made of the Lucentio (Patrick Moy) /Tranio (Keir Charles) swap with Biondello (Jack Laskey) in support. Tranio's imitation of the way he thinks the upper classes speak is very funny especially as Lucentio winces in embarrassment as he hears Tranio's Cockney words lathered over with pretension and hand gestures. A black actor adopting a strong Caribbean accent plays the Merchant (Larrington Walker) who is persuaded to stand in for Vicentio (Leonard Fenton), Lucentio's real father much to the consternation of all, one night when the casting is not meant to be colour blind.

Francis O'Connor's set is an impressive modern day sleazy hotel, which lets rooms by the hour, on the street for the Sly scenes which becomes a Paduan house but his costumes are a witty blend of the old and the new, for instance, the old man suitor Gremio (Peter Shorey) wears a Tudor suit with a modern Pringle sweater diamond pattern on his doublet.

This also one of the bloodiest versions of the Shrew that I have seen with Petruchio inflicting real damage on his manservant and groom Grumio (William Beck). Petruchio's choice of dress for the wedding is even more bizarre than usual as he wears a white crinoline frock, a pair of freshly harvested antlers on his head but dripping blood all over his frock in some kind of symbolism of virginal blood shed on a wedding night. He does succeed in taming his shrew but not before she, starving and humiliated, offers herself sexually to the groom in return for food. Fortunately Grumio does not take her up on the offer but I suppose the message to Petruchio is to be careful about the result of the desperation inflicted on Katherina (Michelle Gomez).

Each time I have seen this play recently I have thought about the favouritism given to Bianca (Amara Karan) over Katherina by their father Baptista Minola (David Hargreaves) and the effect this has had on Katherina knowing that she was less loved than her sister. I was an only child so I'm not identifying here! Michelle Gomez is genuinely moving in the first act as we feel how isolated and frustrated she is, why she has become shrewish. When Petruchio wins the day, Katherina is like a zombie. Other versions have seen Katherina and Petruchio splitting the money having put on an act to win the money wagered by the other newly married grooms. Petruchio kisses her enthusiastically but she is stiff as a board, all emotion knocked out of her by his cruelty. The message comes over strongly that Petruchio has won a hollow victory. He has a cipher for a wife not a real woman. Having said that, Stephen Boxer's Petruchio is attractively in charge, but this is the Taming of the Shrew for S and M enthusiasts and those who enjoy knock about comedy!

The Taming of the Shrew
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Conall Morrison

Starring: Stephen Boxer, Michelle Gomez
With: Arsher Ali, Jade Anouka, Will Beck, Keir Charles, John Paul Connolly, Simon Darwen, Adrian Decosta, Leonard Fenton, James Garnon, Amanda Hadingue , David Hargreaves, Amara Karan, Sean Kearns, Jack Laskey, Patrick Moy, Will Sharpe, Peter Shorey, Larrington Walker
Design: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Paul Keogan
Sound: Mike Compton
Musical Composer: Conor Linehan
Movement: Joyce Henderson
Running time: Three hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0870 950 0941
Booking to 14th March 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th February 2009 performance at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London WC2 (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)

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