Writer: William Shakespeare
Text Adaptation: Edward Hall and Roger Warren
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Nathanael Kent
Edward Hall’s production of The Taming of the Shrew starts not in a tavern but at a wedding, where Christopher Sly, usually portrayed as a drunken tinker, is a no-more sober guest. It’s a nice touch, given that the play is very much a commentary on the institution of marriage. It also works because it makes sense of the framing device Shakespeare uses, in which Sly is made to believe he is a Lord, to whom a group of travelling players perform a play: The Taming of the Shrew. Given its marital themes, Hall implies that this is in fact a dream of Sly’s, and the play we see is his sexual fantasy.
Sadly though, the opening 15 minutes are the best of the evening, for the play the players are tasked with performing is a nasty and misogynistic piece of work. It’s full of female subjugation, especially in the second half, and Hall’s production is played for the laughs thus making light of the domestic violence portrayed on stage. It should be deeply unsettling – though no less forgivable – but since we are so wrapped up in the apparent humour, we never have time to comprehend the cruelty to which Katherine is subjected to by Petruchio.
Fundamentally, The Shrew is about the battle of genders and so it feels a misguided choice for the all-male Propeller ensemble. Dan Wheeler’s Katherine, who starts off as a wilful bleach blonde rock chick, is undoubtedly well-acted but he, somewhat understandably, does not manage to capture the fragility and sexual tension that you would get with a real woman. In an attempt to compensate, Vince Leigh’s Petruchio (he also doubles up as the aforementioned Sly, emphasising the dream aspect) is a violent brute who cracks his whip at every possible moment. While unsubtle, it works if only to increase the contrast between the couple.
Hall deals better with the layers of theatre within the piece. Not only is it a play with a play, but within that is a strong element of disguise and false appearances. It is of no coincidence that for a considerable duration of the play, a costume rack is in full view. As evoked in Michael Pavelka’s otherwise rather bland design, we’re in a hall of mirrors. Reality is, on so many levels, blurred with illusion.
A point is also made in reminding us that, in Sly’s mind, the play is being performed by actors. Very occasionally a line is delivered in a stale manner, the actor reading a prompt he scribbled on his hand. It’s a clever device which thankfully isn’t overused, and though it adds to the humour of the piece, it is effective, unlike the cheap laughs achieved by brief flashes of nudity which serve no other purpose.
This production is truly an ensemble piece, and there is a joy that comes from seeing a group of actors who have worked together for a long time. There are strong performances all round, and as usual with Propeller, the live music (in the interval, too) is a particular highlight. It is just a shame that, as with their disappointing Winter’s Tale last year, Propeller’s inventiveness is marred by some misguided direction and ultimately the wrong choice of play. When they get it right though, as with their Richard III – and hopefully their Twelfth Night, which opens at the Marlowe later this week –they’re some of the best Shakespeare interpretations you’ll see.