Lucy Bailey's roughhousing RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew swaggers up to the play, with a leer. Setting the action in the 1940s, and (none-too-subtly) emphasising its lusty undertones by transforming the stage into a giant bed, Bailey's take on one of Shakespeare's most problematic comedies tries hard to make the play into a riotous romp: ribald, frisky and, God knows, "sexy."
It tries too hard, in fact. Now touring, the production was well-received when it opened at Stratford in January, and was generally deemed to be a fresh and exciting take on a play dismissed by one early 20th Century critic as "an ugly and barbarous as well as a very confused, prosaic and tedious affair." But for me Bailey's production seems not so much to solve the play's confusions as to create some new ones, and to come off, ultimately, as less spry than strained.
The story of Petruchio's wooing, wedding and winning of the "curst and froward" Kate has been played as a rollicking farce or as a social satire; as endorsing its title or ironising it. Bailey's production opts for farce in the main, taking a broad, rough-and-tumble approach that's sometimes reminiscent of that of Ed Hall's Propeller but without the subtler tones and the inventiveness that define that company's work. The production retains and (our cup runneth over) actually elaborates on the tedious Christopher Sly Induction scenes, with Nick Holder's drunken, corpulent Sly remaining a presence throughout the action. How you feel about this decision will depend, largely, upon how hilarious you find the spectacle of a man running around with no pants on. But, as presented and developed here, these scenes seem like filler, and they fail to illuminate the main business in any especially interesting way.
A Shrew that, though flawed, still offers us an engaging Kate and Petruchio with great chemistry can be forgiven its shortcomings. But this production's problems aren't so much mitigated by the central performances as exacerbated by them. Like many other directors, Bailey claims to see Kate and Petruchio as rebellious "misfits" who are challenging "the small-minded people around them." But what we actually see, here, is a pair of obnoxious figures engaged in shrill and silly game-playing on their way to, in Bailey's terms, "the best sex ever."
Lisa Dillon's Kate - variously writhing and weeing, smoking and spitting - is certainly a forceful presence. But Dillon's performance is undermined by her extremely irritating vocal delivery: almost everything she says sounds affected. David Caves's strutting, bare-chested Petruchio is scarcely more appealing, and the trajectory of the pair's relationship is neither clearly nor compellingly charted here. (In a pushy production that overdoes almost everything, the taming scenes themselves seem oddly, well, tame.) I'm not sure what Dillon is attempting to do with the final submission speech, but her highly-strung delivery makes Kate seem just as screwed-up at the end as she was at the beginning.
Some competent turns fill out the background: there's amusing work from Terence Wilton as Baptista (with whom you may find yourself sympathising), from John Marquez as a preening Tranio, and from Sam Swainsbury and David Rintoul as Bianca's suitors. But everyone seems to have been directed to overdo it, and the manic gesticulating indulged in by most of the cast is one of several unappealing elements in a forced and charmless production that becomes increasingly tiresome as it progresses.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.