Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse

“Here’s a snip and nip and cut and slish and slash”

Robin Norton-Hale has been responsible for reinvigorating (or even inventing) the genre of pub opera with the wildly successful La Bohème, followed up by Don Giovanni this year and now turns her hand to Shakespeare with this adaption of The Taming of the Shrew at Southwark Playhouse. The modernisation sees us located in 21st century Brixton, the train map in the programme guiding us through stations such as Mantua Hill, Old Naples Road and Milan House allowing the Italian place names to remain in situ. And in Cherry Truluck’s cluttered market stall design, there’s a raft of amusing little touches: Katherine is first seen reading Margaret Attwood, Hortensio woos in his music lesson with a rendition of Mad World, Grumio serves up microwaved lasagne for dinner and there’s a mobile phone gag which is still making me chuckle now.

But the updating is merely cosmetic in the final analysis, the text – although considerably trimmed and reshaped here – doesn’t really impose any new interpretative framework onto the play and so the problems that can be found remain, and in some cases are exacerbated. Times have changed (although some might say not enough) and so the story struggles to connect in the modern-day context: Katherine doesn’t need to get married and could strike out on her own whenever she wanted – the opportunities available now are worlds apart from the 17th century, the economic and social pressures just aren’t there and so the motivation behind her actions is not particularly evident in this production.

Elexi Walker does imbue Katherine with a great sense of spiky character and a sensual physicality which is brought out by Simon Darwen’s über-confident Petruchio and they convince as a couple irresistibly drawn together, but once the ‘taming’ begins, the tone becomes rather confused. Walker wraps much of her speech in a wry sarcastic note which leaves the question of how seriously they are taking the whole thing frustratingly obtuse. Carried through to the final speech, this uncertainty just serves to highlight how difficult a play this is.

The other main plot, of Katherine’s sister Bianca playing off her various suitors against each other, sits rather uneasily against this ambiguity. Where Katherine finds the need to react strongly against society, the precocious younger sister is more than happy to play the game, Simone James’ Bianca sucks on her lollipop provocatively and smears chocolate cake over her tutor, presenting another portrayal of feminine behaviour that feels questionable. There’s good work from Giles Roberts’ Hortensio and the double act of Will Featherstone and Simon Ginty, Lucentio and Tranio respectively, is most entertaining especially when they are impersonating each other.

So a fitfully interesting adaptation, but one which never surmounts the awkwardness of Shakespeare’s original. There’s definitely a freshness and an energy at work here but the attempts to shoehorn the story into a meaningful modern context work against it in the end, leaving it quite confused.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval) (although website advertises 90 minutes assumedly without interval…)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 29th October

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