Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not everyone who's seen the famous tale of Katherine, the shrewish woman tamed by the wild wiles of Petruchio, will know that it was actually written as a play within a play: the opening scene is about a drunken tinker called Christopher Sly being fooled into believing he is a lord and this entertainment is created for his benefit. Lucy Bailey, directing the RSC production of Taming of the Shrew now at Bath Theatre Royal, has not only retained this introduction but incorporated much bawdy comedy around the portly tinker throughout the action. It’s a good decision, allowing for a theme of dream longings to entwine with the complex plot – and an even better decision is to make the entire set a giant bed, as if Sly has fallen into a gross erotic Alice’s Wonderland. And this is not ancient Padua but a non-specific small town in the 1940s/50s era with costumes that evoke American-Italian movies – there’s a Tennessee Williams moment with the lovers, a touch of Grease with pony-tailed Bianca and her nerdy scholar-boyfriend, and a dash of mafia about the nobles’ negotiations.
Acting overall is as excellent as you'd expect from this company. Nick Holder as Sly is terrific, intruding in the antics with the swagger of a lord and the underclothes of a tinker to remind us that there is little difference, under their robes, between any of these rowdy loud-mouthed men. Most of their behaviour is borderline-out-of-control bullying and vulgarity, but Kate is violent to the point of dangerous derangement.
There’s much routine slapping, spitting, ball-scratching and pissing though some of the more bizarre antics are truly funny – as when the fake Lucentio taunts his rival by flinging open shutters to reveal Bianca and the real Lucentio in a series of increasingly explicit poses, once with bemused Sly peeping from between their legs.
It’s a clever, if often overly-ribald, interpretation that’s neither rom-com nor black comedy. This is not called a ‘problem play’ for nothing. Even with boisterous embellishment to underline the coarse & cruel macho society that Kate finds so frustrating - where women are sold & bought by men like any other asset, where lords behave so disreputably they’re indistinguishable from their rowdy servants – there is simply no definition of irony that can make her final, docile, dutiful, speech anything other than odious. The script is long and often ugly, most of the characters intent on trickery whether from greed or from happy-slapping mentality. I applaud the brave directorial attempt to make this a love story of twin souls but unfortunately the scriptwriter has worked assiduously against it.

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