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“Come, Kate, We’ll to bed”: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – The Royal Shakespeare Company On Tour

March 24, 2012

ImageThe Taming of the Shrew is usually considered to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, thought to be written around 1590, although there is no firm evidence to corroborate this as it did not appear in print until the First Folio of 1623. It is also considered, for all Shakespeare was a prolific writer of both drama and poetry, to cast him in a bad light, seeing it as a misogynist, chauvenistic depiction of how to break the will of a high-spirited, fiesty (and, in those days, unconventional) woman.

Fortunately, this is not the way this latest production of Shrew, directed by the very talented Lucy Bailey, comes across. Bailey’s direction is characterised by the way it works to visualise Shakespeare’s language, such that, in Shrew, the humour, the puns, and their sheer bawdiness, are much more apparent than they appear on the page. No character escapes the overt sexuality of the play – even the seemingly chaste Bianca comes across as a little minx who is just much better and more prepared to play the part of the conventionally demure young woman in front of her father. Under Bailey’s instruction, the stage is even transformed into a giant bed, a device that both beautifully compliments the sexual over and undertones of the play and also provides the setting for some fabulously contrived pillow fights and chasing sketches between Sly and his “wife” to mark the divide between the acts of the main drama.

The acting, especially of Lisa Dillon (Kate) and David Caves (Petruchio) is impeccable – the verbal ping pong of banter between them is so natural and the chemistry between them is so convincing it could be genuine. One question I had was why Caves made Petruchio Irish considering that Shakespeare set the play in Elizabethan Italy and Bailey’s interpretation is set in the same country but in the 1940s (set during that period because, Bailey says, “it’s difficult to set Shrew in the present when not to be married isn’t a problem”), but I have supposed that this was probably an anomaly performed to mark St Patrick’s Day, which coincided with the day I saw the production.

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Even the ‘taming’ scenes, which have caused this play and its writer so much scorn by critics interpreting them as depictions of misogyny and chauvenism at work to break the will of an independent and strong-minded woman, are handled, under Bailey’s direction, with a delicate irony. In their moment, the scenes in which delicious food and fashionable clothes are paraded before Kate only to be snatched away again by Petruchio having been deemed “not good enough” are torturous and impossible to avoid portraying as such. However, during the finale scene, when the three new husbands bet on whose wife is the most obedient and Kate, the obviously unlikely choice, proves the most submissive to her husbands will, and then departing the scene with her husband flourishes an expletive, single finger gesture back at the characters on stage watching her, it becomes amusingly clear that the submissive wife is simply a role to be played and that Kate is still the same as she always was underneath, it’s just now she knows how to play the game. Bailey comments on the conclusion of the play “once Petruchio says ‘Come, Kate, we’ll to bed’, I think you have to imagine that they’re going to have the best sex ever.”, and I’m sure they are!

The Taming of the Shrew was never one of my favourite Shakespeare plays before I saw it performed, and it was only in seeing it that I realised that it was because I’d never seen it that I didn’t like it. To enjoy it properly, Shakespeare must be experienced as a performance rather than a reading. So much of the wonderful humour that gets lost in translation between Shakespeare’s English and our own modern English is flamboyantly resurrected on stage and, as I found, hilarity invariably ensues. Lucy Bailey’s interpretation was a delight to watch and a resounding success, and has revived my love of the bard with a more than ardent fervour.

The Taming of the Shrew is currently on tour around the UK.

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