The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

★★★★½

(directed by Toby Frow; Globe Theatre, until 13 October 2012)

Another splendid evening at the Globe last night, although very different in character from Henry V a few weeks ago. Raucous, bawdy and lively, Toby Frow’s Shrew is rich with physical comedy and slapstick. It’s fantastic to watch something like this at the Globe, because more than ever you come to understand the vibrancy of theatre in Shakespeare’s day. The audience feeds off the exuberance of the actors, who in turn draw it back from them: to see a successful comedy in this theatre is to feel symbiosis in action.

Once again, you’ll know the story, because even if you haven’t seen the Shrew on stage or film, you’ll probably have seen the utterly wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You.  But just in case… The young and impressionable Lucentio (Joseph Timms) arrives in Padua to study, accompanied by his rather more worldly-wise servant Tranio (Jamie Beamish). Catching sight from afar of the lovely Bianca (Sarah MacRae), Lucentio swiftly falls in love and is determined to woo her. However, he is to find that the path of true love is dotted with pot-holes. First, Bianca already has two firm suitors – the rather dull Hortensio (Rick Warden) and the doddery Gremio (Michael Bertenshaw). Second, her father Baptista (Pip Donaghy) has decreed that Bianca will see no one but her schoolmasters until her elder sister has been married.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Katherina (Samantha Spiro) has a reputation as a shrew and a scold, and no Paduan in his right mind will go near her. Lucentio hatches a plan to disguise himself as a schoolmaster (named Cambio) so that he can spend time with his beloved Bianca, while Tranio happily steps into the persona of Lucentio and prepares to live the high life. Hortensio also decides to disguise himself – as a music teacher – but not before he and Gremio have come to an uneasy truce. They decide to work together to find someone to marry Katherina – but it will have to be someone brave enough or mad enough to enter the lion’s den. Cue a visit from Hortensio’s old friend Petruchio (Simon Paisley Day), who in the aftermath of his father’s death has set out for Padua in search of a very rich wife – no matter what faults she may have. The scene is set for one of Shakespeare’s great comedies (when played well), which poses some interesting questions about what men want in a woman; and how far women are prepared to indulge them.

The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

Baptista (Pip Donaghy) and Bianca (Sarah MacRae)

My main point of reference for The Taming of the Shrew is the film with Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina (Kate) and Richard Burton as Petruchio. As it happened, there were moments when Frow’s production reminded me quite strongly of the film, especially in the presentation of Kate herself. Samantha Spiro looked very much like Elizabeth Taylor from a distance, playing Kate with all the force of a diminutive firecracker even though she was given little to do for the first few scenes except shriek and squawk. While watching the play, I’d thought that Simon Paisley Day’s Petruchio was a cross between Richard Burton and Basil Fawlty, so imagine my joy when I got home and, in consulting my trusty Shakespeare on Screen, found that John Cleese played Petruchio for the BBC in 1980.

Paisley Day also played Christopher Sly in the opening section, which personally I don’t much care for, although it does offer a clever halfway house between play and reality. Last night Sly was played as a drunk England fan who staggered up onto the stage and proceeded to urinate over one of the columns before passing out; all credit to the Globe, who did their absolute best to make it realistic, complete with security coming on stage and one of the managers – and the actors emerging from the tiring-house – but no one in the audience believed it to be real for a moment. (On being informed that the intruder ‘was dead’, lots of people just laughed.) Once Sly has come round, and been tricked into thinking himself a lord, we can get on with the real story…

Modern directors must have quite a challenge with the Shrew. How do you make people laugh at a play which shows a man breaking a woman’s spirit with starvation and sleep deprivation? Frow managed it, by putting a subtly different slant on Kate’s behaviour and by giving her relationship with Petruchio real underlying warmth. In this production, Kate’s poor reputation is largely the result of being framed by her attention-seeking younger sister, who in private is perfectly able to scratch and name-call and fight with the best of them, but who melts into a sobbing heap of virginal innocence whenever a third person comes onto the scene. Bianca is the duplicitous one – a bit of a minx – whereas Kate has been tarred with a brush and has found that she can only get her own way by playing up to her reputation.

The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

Gremio (Michael Bertenshaw) and Hortensio (Rick Warden)

Near the beginning of the play, after a squabble with Bianca, Kate turns to her father for comfort, looking close to tears; Baptista simply turns away. He has no time for his troublesome daughter; he doesn’t see that she craves love and affection just as much as Bianca does. It was played for laughs, but there was a bitter undertone to it. Kate’s lines suddenly had extra resonance:

What! will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure…
Talk not to me: I will go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.

The audience had great sympathy for her from the start. Barred by Baptista from her house in the first scene, she kicked the door down – and a huge cheer went up.

Kate’s transformation from harpy to loving wife is treated as a war of attrition. Petruchio puts himself through the same trials – he is deprived of food and sleep, as well as she – and it feels less like the breaking of a woman than the trimming back of two remarkable egos, until they can find a place where they counterbalance and complement each other. Kate agrees to let Petruchio dictate her view of the world – sun is moon, age is youth – not because she has been crushed into blind acceptance, but because she recognises that she can’t keep demanding to have her own way; marriage is a partnership and she needs to humour her husband a little. Her ‘taming’ therefore appears to be more a matter of graceful negotiation. Paisley Day’s Petruchio is less rowdy than others that I’ve seen: he doesn’t answer Kate’s brawling with shouting of his own. He is physically very capable of keeping her in check and he is generally calm and almost patient with her. He humiliates her by playing the fool himself. (Paisley Day is to be commended for his fortitude: his Petruchio turns up for his wedding stark naked except for a posing pouch – some of the groundlings were quite overcome.)

It’s the first time I’ve believed Kate when she laments that all her deprivations have been presented in the guise of true love. She genuinely does believe he loves her and, after a childhood deprived of real love from her family, she realises that she doesn’t have to play up for attention any more. Here is someone who is her intellectual equal, who values her for her qualities and who won’t suffer any nonsense; and, secure in the knowledge of his love, she eventually blossoms. There was real chemistry between Paisley Day and Spiro, and together they managed to suggest the two rather fragile souls hidden under these carapaces of braggadocio.

The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

Bianca (Sarah MacRae) and Kate (Samantha Spiro)

The rest of the cast were also very good, although they couldn’t help but be overshadowed by the two main roles. Timms was a perfect romantic hero as Lucentio, with his matinee-idol moustache and flowing locks, throwing himself whole-heartedly into the business of being in love. Beamish presented an ideal foil: he switched from Tranio’s Irish accent to the swaggering mock-Lucentio’s received English, flamboyantly overacting his part-within-a-part. Grumio (Pearce Quigley) had more than a dash of Baldrick about him, and although I didn’t initially warm to him, he’d worked his magic on me by the end. Tom Baldwin’s Biondello also deserves a mention for sheer comic genius. And the music throughout was wonderful; Petruchio’s scullions took the crown with their rendition of a dirty song about a cuckoo’s nest, which was performed with great relish. All in all, it was extremely silly in a very clever way – something which we English are fortunately rather good at. And it was all rounded off with a feel-good moment in which Kate defies her doubters by putting on a performance of exquisite and complete obedience (I still can’t decide whether she’s agreed this with Petruchio or does it in spite of him).

I have to finish with a story from the Taylor / Burton film of the Shrew. In fact, I’m going to quote directly from Shakespeare on Screen:

In the final scene [Elizabeth Taylor] produced a surprise which apparently revealed a great deal about the Burton/Taylor marriage. [Richard Burton] had expected his fiercely independent wife to lace Katherina’s declaration of female subservience with heavy irony… Yet she infused it with unmistakable sincerity and love. When Zeffirelli called cut, Burton turned to Taylor and said, with tears in his eyes: ‘All right, my girl, I wish you’d put that into practice.’

Buy the film

The Taming of the Shrew: William Shakespeare

Peace restored: Kate (Samantha Spiro) and Petruchio (Simon Paisley Day)

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