“That seeming to be most which we indeed least are”
Despite being one of Shakespeare’s more notorious plays, The Taming of the Shrew has enjoyed a long and varied performance history as productions seek to try to present this difficult tale of female subservience in a way that is acceptable to audiences. It has proved trickier though in modern times to square the misogynistic circle and so directors often find themselves upping the innovative ante to unearth interpretations which will prove satisfyingly revelatory. What this often means in practice though is that a high concept is adopted which offers insight into part of the story whilst the rest is left straining to fit in. Lucy Bailey is the latest to try and tame the Shrew here for the RSC in a production which has played a season in Stratford and is now on a short tour of the UK, currently here in Richmond.
The angle that she chooses to focus on is the Induction, the framing device that sets the story in its context – this is all just a performance being put on by a rowdy bunch of friends to delude the drunken fool Christopher Sly. Sly – a bumptious revealing turn from Nick Holder – is kept on stage throughout most of the first half and in some ways, this almost convinces us that what we are watching is but a drunken fantasy. But he is gradually phased out of the show, and so the apparent importance of being reminded that this isn’t real is stripped away and the second half played largely straight as a story that suddenly is to be taken more seriously.
Bailey’s second major stroke is to relocate the action to 1940s Italy, to a fiercely chauvinistic society where possession of a woman is everything and cocky virility boasted of at every turn. This is a more successful recasting of the narrative, especially as the attention is focused on lust and sex, not least in Ruth Sutcliffe’s design which makes the whole stage a giant bed. So the tussles of courtship, seduction and taming are directly prefigured as foreplay. This is evident in the strident physicality of Lisa Dillon’s restless Kate and David Caves’ Petruchio, whose attraction to her is instant as the couple clash time and time again and their unconventional relationship twists and turns as he apparently tries to mould her into something different, less wild.
But making sex the driving force of the production, whilst helping us to understand the central relationship a little better, throws up weaknesses elsewhere, especially around the ending. If what we have been watching has all been leading up to the climactic moment of intercourse, something is lost in the depth of the relationship. We need to believe that it is built on something more, something that will last as opposed to the shakier ground that Bianca’s relationship is finally revealed to be on in the final scenes and Bailey neglects this, allowing Caves and Dillon to just play up the mischievousness without convincing us of the beginnings of genuine emotion. Both seem oddly out of time as well, much more modern in their actions than the 1940s setting would have us believe – did people wear tattoos so proudly then (or even have them?).
And though around them, the RSC ensemble were solid, they ultimately remained a little uninspiring. Elizabeth Cadwallader’s Bianca has a nice level of spark that marks her as a definite sibling to Kate, John Marquez’s Tranio is amusing as were Gavin Fowler and Sam Swainsbury in the well-played Bianca sub-plot. But there were weaker performances too, verse-speaking that wasn’t up to par or sufficient audibility and too much recourse back to stock characterisations – the bawdy widow, the fool, the mistaken identity nonsense – in all honesty, there was very little that suggested we were in 1940’s Italy for most of the show.
In some ways, the RSC have little reason to change their modus operandi, the market for relatively traditional Shakespeare is always there and they have perfected the art. But with the rise of companies with the flair of say Filter or Propeller, who are both really raising the bar in terms of reinvigorating the Bard’s work for modern audiences, the RSC seem to come up short. Innovative stagings need to be paired with crystal clear emotional resonance to really hit the mark, and that just doesn’t happen here in The Taming of the Shrew. A substantial part of this is due to the play itself, but a question mark has to be placed over an interpretation which pushes its actors this way and stretches credulity twice-over.