Taming of the Shrew – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Maria Gaitanidi

When putting on a production of Taming of the Shrew, there are famously two major issues to
contend with. The first is the troublingly unapologetic misogyny; the other, less problematic but
equally tricky, is the incredibly confusing and seemingly non-sequitur, play-within-a-play set-up.

The latter is often dealt with simply by lopping it off- it’s really only at the beginning, and the
audience is none the wiser.

The former, however, is interwoven in the very fabric of the play. Indeed, it is written in to the title-
Katherina (Melissa Riggall) is likened to a wild shrew and must be broken and tamed in order to
make for a good wife, which her husband Petruchio (Paul Ready) does by starvation, sleep
deprivation and gaslighting.

Over the years, attempts have been made to navigate and neutralise this problem. Edward Hall’s
2007 production saw an all-male cast; the RSC’s production last year swapped gender roles. Others
have insinuated that Petruchio and Katherina are in fact truly in love, or, indeed that they are truly
not, and that Shakespeare wished to reflect the ill-treatment of women in his time. This is all to say,
there are plenty of interpretations and theories, successful or no, as to how we might still enjoy this
problematic story.

On this occasion, it seems director Maria Gaitanidi’s method is to crash head-long in to both the
issues of misogyny and the play-within-a-play, ignoring any potential problems and instead focusing
on production and design. And in this regard, she is successful.Liam Bunster’s design is all-subsuming, playing to the intimate space – multiple balconies, ladders, a gallery, a lower stage, a bridge. There seems no end to where we might find the players, seeing asthey never truly disappear backstage, instead finding a spot from which to watch the action if nottaking part in it. Bunster uses quite literally the entire auditorium, never minding the usual audience/stage division.

A two-piece (Laura Moody, Vasilis Sarikis), accompanies the performances throughout with an
acoustic Mediterranean soundtrack, happily guiding the play away from the uptight Elizabethan
courts, and bringing it closer to its intended European setting.

The play begins with a drunkard, Christopher Sly (James Northcote), being tricked in to believing that
he is in fact a lord, and that the players are going to perform a play for his lordly enjoyment, which is
to include the main plot of ‘Taming of the Shrew’: Katherina’s father (Jude Owusu) decrees that his
youngest and more beguiling daughter Bianca (Evelyn Miller) may not marry until his eldest,
Katherina, fearsome and strong-willed, is married. And so Bianca’s suitors set out to find a match for
the elder.

The cast doubles and sometimes triples up on roles, each playing their parts in the Christopher Sly
story as well as in the main plot. Seeing as Sly’s character doesn’t really appear again in the rest of
the story, it gets rather confusing as to whether we’re supposed to remember this bit. Indeed, when
Northcote plays Lucentio, Bianca’s suitor, is he playing Sly who is in turn playing Lucentio, or just the
latter? Or does it not matter? Similarly, in the first, Miller plays the lord, but then appears as Bianca.

Is she too playing the lord playing Bianca? Or are we supposed to forget that we ever saw her
before? Or are we in fact supposed to be completely confused? The idea of getting rid of the
Chistopher Sly bit is looking ever more appealing by the minute.

Riggall is majestic and quietly, almost unnervingly, self-possessed. There does seem a strange kind of
chemistry between her Katherina and Ready’s Petruchio during the wedding scene, in which they
show themselves to be the same type of weird in a sort of awkward tango dance battle. But for the
most part, he is clearly her intellectual and social inferior, and seems only to eventually bend her to
his will by exhausting and starving her. So when she does indeed capitulate it’s hard to know what
the moral should be, seeing as it’s supposed to be a comedy.

There is a lot of humour in the text, though for the most part, it’s found in witty quips or dramatic
delivery rather than any understanding of what is happening. Michelle Terry, as hostess, widow and
Biondello, particularly excels in bringing humour to most every line, almost regardless of the

Mattia Mariotti is also comically gifted, though some of his delivery is lost on a fogged audience.
Originally playing the part of a servant ordered to dress as a woman and trick Christopher Sly in to
believing he is his wife, he then continues on to play a servant to Lucentio (who is played by
Christopher Sly) in the play-within-the-play and then he and Lucentio swap roles, so that Mariotti is –
let’s see now- a servant pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a servant, pretending to be a
lord… The audience must be forgiven for being confused to distraction.

If you couldn’t tell, trying to unpick this story and production is fruitless and hurts the head. It seems
there’s no use trying to make sense of it, and the best course of action is to ignore the plot for the
most part and simply to let it all wash over us, enjoying the bold performances, beautiful candlelit
design, and lulling music.

Runs until 18 April 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Pleasing, but perplexing

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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