Tuesday 11 October 2011

Treat-‘em-mean, keep-‘em-keen

The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse, London

There’s colour and character aplenty in Robin Norton-Hale’s production of Shakespeare’s least agreeable play, but in trying to smooth its rough edges, the director has sanded it down to nonsense. Not only is the end result bafflingly implausible, it’s no more a Taming of the Shrew than Hamlet is.

Of course, directors today must approach The Taming of the Shrew tactically. Contemporary audiences will not readily accept the straightforward success of Petruchio’s methods, and the usual solution involves reframing Kate’s eventual acquiescence as irony, rebellion or tragedy.

Norton-Hale opts instead to sidestep misogyny by having Elexi Walker’s Kate freely chose to drop her guard. Essentially, the play becomes a rom-com between two anti-heroes. The lovers end up playing the same game, cynically toying with a world to which both are utterly, arrogantly, indifferent. What does it matter whether the moon shines or the sun? Or if old men be deemed young women? The world can be as these two lovebirds see fit to dub it or else it can go hang.

Why then does Walker deliver Kate’s final hymn to obedience with sincerity? True, there are half-smiles in Petruchio’s direction, leaving it possible that this is another of their private jokes, but she seems to be in earnest and Dave Fishley’s Baptista wells up at her words, genuinely touched by his daughter’s transformation.

The only plausible explanation, what with Petruchio’s concern for dowries and high-stakes betting, is that Kate and Petruchio (Simon Darwen) have gone all Rooney Senior and fixed the match unseen on the journey home. The Taming of the Shrew as a scamster’s con trick? ‘Split the winnings, Kate, then split’? Hmm. But where Norton-Hale’s cosmetic surgery morphs the play out of recognition is by cutting the attempt to kill a wife with kindness’. On arrival in the countryside, Kate is served not a fine meal dismissed ‘in reverend care of her’, but a microwaved lasagne dished up in its plastic packaging. Worse still, it’s actually burnt. Is it any surprise that she has trouble sleeping, given that they all seem to be kipping down in sleeping bags?

Why, this is the way to drive a wife to suicide; less hospitality surplus than hostage situation. Perhaps Norton-Hale is advocating the treat-‘em-mean, keep-‘em-keen philosophy. Or perhaps he simply hasn’t read his Sparks Notes. As if in pointed defiance of the text, the outfit Petruchio has delivered is perfectly tailored. Kate’s even happy to wear it for the remainder. If you can forgive all this – and you shouldn’t – there’s more than enough humour and fizz to satisfy. Norton-Hale has a sense of theatre, even if he misses that of the text.

Oddly, though, the solution is staring him in the face, namely, class. In fact, it’s the central pillar of his production, which offsets Brixton girls against gents made in Chelsea, but goes unused, dramaturgically at least. It certainly provides humour: Giles Roberts making a brilliant buffoon as a Barboured Gap Yah Hortensio, signing off phone calls with an abrupt ‘Anon.’ But with echoes of colonialism and Bullingdon bluster, Norton-Hale has all the negative spin he needs. As is, class simply becomes excess, unconsidered noise.

A shame, because it has allowed Darwen, in particular, to mine a smart link between Petruchio and Iago, namely a radical indifference that allows him to treat others as playthings. He seems, at first, a man who can’t even be bothered to summon up callous disrespect, shrugging as he schemes in his own self-interest. His is a Petruchio up for the challenge and out for the dowry and, were he not handicapped by such woeful misdirection, Darwen could have nailed a part that few get right.

Till 29 October 2011


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