The Taming of The Shrew/Twelfth Night, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

The Taming of The Shrew/Twelfth Night

The March Winds Have Blown the Propeller Company's Unusual Double Bill to BAM's Harvey Theater

This isn't your classic Taming of the Shrew or Twelfth Night but then few Shakespeare productions these days are. The all Male Propeller company under Edward Hall's direction bring yet another new take to two of the Bard's favorite plays. I wish my schedule had permitted me to see both halves of the double bill. However, while Taming of the Shrew is said to be the best of the pair, I found nothing second best about the Twelfth Night I caught at BAM Friday night. It is one of the most delightful Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen.

Twelfth Nightenthusiasts love this comedy for its mistaken identities, gender-switching, and Shakespeare's best comic relief besides Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch. Even if the everything else were a complete wash, this production would still be woth seeing for its Sir Toby scenes.

Propeller's graceful and delicate handling of the play belies the all-male casting. Indeed, the actors are so skillful that after a few minutes, you almost forget they’re all men. These aren’t simpering drag queens or men bent on making a point about gender relations — they are simply extraordinarily good actors and Propeller may be hands-down the best ensemble group in town right now.

The staging and casting has stayed the same since the plays were performed in London production (see Lizzie Loveridge's detailed review of both productions). The set with its few mirrored wardrobes, several drapes, and an enormous chandelier festooned with ribbons fits the decor of BAM’s Harvey Theater so closely that it’s hard to tell where the stage leaves off and the theater begins. Triangular shrubbery is brought on for the famous garden scene in which Malvolio discovers the letter. The actors play The actors who play a variety of instruments as soundtrack to the action are perhaps more adept than ever, playing. Director Peter Hall keeps a few of them on stage at all times, wearing masks, draping themselves about the sidelines and watching the action as intently as the audience. It’s very Brechtian, and , feels wonderfully authentic. That's not to say that this authenticity is in any way stuffy or too Elizabethan. Instead, it’s very fluid, extremely elegant — and delightfully funny.

The double bill continues at BAM through April first with tickets ranging from $25 to $65. Check the Bam webside,, performance dates. and tickets.

Review of the London Production by Lizzie Loveridge

I am not what I am.
---- Cesario in Twelfth Night
The Taming of The Shrew/Twelfth Night
Simon Scardifield as Katharine and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Petruchio
(Photo: Philip Tull)
In a fascinating double bill, the all male acting company Propeller directed by Edward Hall, brings two Shakespeare plays to Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. What is especially interesting on Propeller’s take is that they make no concession in terms of wigs and chest hair for men to play women. The characterisation is all and the result, while it may be incongruous, is often profound. This is very different from the approach in Shakespeare’s day when the female roles were played by young boys with piping voices, or indeed that of today’s Shakespeare’s Globe under Mark Rylance with their all-male companies. What Propeller and Edward Hall achieve is new way of looking at the part and often too the play.

In Shrew the play is set in its Christopher Sly context, scenes often omitted in modern productions. The 1594 Quarto The Taming of a Shrewhas the fullest involvement of Christopher Sly (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), the tinker who is discovered by a party of rich men and who is treated like a lord when he wakes up as a joke. In the Folio, The Taming of the Shrew Sly’s part peters out but in the Quarto, he remains onstage throwing in asides. In Propeller’s version, Sly remains onstage and then takes on the part of Petruchio (again Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) with six pack stomach and thrusting pelvic moves. Petruchio never gives up Sly’s baseness of character and the battle between Petruchio and Katharine (Simon Scardifield) becomes one of wife beater and beaten wife, dark and deeply unpleasant.

When Katharine is called upon to make the speech at the end when she instructs her sister Bianca (Jon Trenchard) and Hortensio’s (Jack Tarlton) widow (Dominic Tighe) to obey their husbands, she mouths it as if she has learnt it by rote and believes not a word of what she is saying. I was interested too in the placing of the bet in the full presence of the three women. Normally they are off stage when the wager is laid as to who will return first to her husband’s bidding. Somehow, their all hearing what is at stake and still two of them deciding to ignore the call gives us the message that Bianca and the Widow may turn into worse shrews than Katharine. The famous line where Katharine talks about placing her hand beneath her husband’s foot has nothing other than the words here, no actual placing of her hand in submission.

There are other interesting observations to be made about Propeller’s work in Shrew. Bianca has none of the real beauty about her and so we are left with a portrait just of her simpering and manipulative flirtation as she locks herself in a wardrobe and sobs. Katharine is never allowed to change from the ripped and mud soaked garments she is wearing when she arrives at Petruchio’s house. She has to return to Padua for Bianca’s wedding feast still clad in these, humiliated for a second time in front of her family as Petruchio drives home his cruel victory in this battle of the sexes. While we can admire Katharine initially with her punky haircut, her short red minidress with striped stockings and her feisty physicality as she jumps up onto the top of wardrobes, at the end we have someone cowed and obviously unhappy. Gone are all those sexual frissons of a fun power play between a man who really loves his wife and is loved in return.

The design team work wonders with smoke and the mirrored doors of the wardrobes in creating Padua. Hortensio seems to have won Petruchio’s clothes with their eclectic mixture of pattern and colour and Petruchio’s wedding outfit is a leopardskin jockstrap topped by a fringed Davy Crockett frontiersman jacket.

By contrast, for me Twelfth Night did not seem to take on the same originality of interpretation. In an acting pairing tour de force, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart takes on the haughty Olivia, all height and shaved haircut with long satiny frock to cover his muscles and full length black gloves to pose with outstretched arms and kissable hands. Incongruous? Yes! Convincing? Not really. The cast who are not actually involved speaking onstage, creep around wearing face masks, always in shot, and watching the action from behind the grey painted wardrobes, like creepy animals or even the Phantoms in Rocky Horror. Why? I don’t know. I was so conscious of the tall, dominant figure of Olivia, even when she was not speaking in a scene I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

On the other hand, I loved Tam Williams’ sweet Viola who actually makes that extravagant switch work, a man playing a girl playing a boy. Chris Myles too was a no-nonsense Maria, and effective in the Belch scenes. Tony Bell’s Feste was languid and intelligent and I liked Jack Tarlton’s pleasant Orsino. The twins look enough alike to convince although Sebastian (Joe Flynn) and Olivia fail to persuade as a couple, they look ridiculous together. Simon Scardifield should be superb as Agucheek but the night I saw him, two press performances on one day may have taken their toll as he followed the gruelling and superbly played role of Katharine with the comic cameo of the sidekick knight. Malvolio (Bob Barrett) too has no new insight but I greatly enjoyed the setting of the garden scene with stylised triangular trees for the cronies to hide behind to spy on Malvolio’s reading of the forged letter.

The fight between Cesario and Agucheek is staged as a boxing match with the cast holding a rope square to contain the action. Propeller’s reading of Twelfth Night will not offend school parties studying the text because the clarity of the way they speak the lines is second to none. But, for my money I was very irritated by Olivia’s preening, posing and camply simpering. Intriguingly, the most satisfying play here is the domestically violent Shrew.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall

With: Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, Tam Williams, Tony Bell, Alasdair Craig, Bob Barrett, Simon Scardifield, Jon Trenchard, Chris Myles, Jack Tarlton, Jason Baugham, Joe Flynn, Dominic Tighe, Tom McDonald
Design: Michael Pavelka
Lighting: Shrew Mark Howland and Ben Ormerod, Twelfth Night Ben Ormerod
Music: Propeller
Running time: Each Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6628
Booking to 17th March 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th January 2007 performances at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)
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