Given Durham’s very active feminist society, The Taming of the Shrew was certainly a brave choice. However, this production proves a well-executed, highly professional and hysterically funny take on the Shakespearean classic. Modern and authentic, the strong cast and complex direction breathe new life into the well-known plot.
The Taming of the Shrew is the tale of the desperate struggles of Bianca Minola’s suitors to marry off her older, more terrifying sister Katherina, so that her father Baptista will permit them to court her. While the suitors battle among themselves for the favour of Bianca, the marriage of Katharina to Petruchio unfolds.
Unusually, Courtney Cliffe has included the Sly frame to the play, which, though beloved amongst scholars, is often not included in many modern theatrical performances. Though energetic, the prologue seemed to be at a quite different level of performance to the rest of the production. Furthermore it was not addressed at the play’s closing, and set a very different tone to the rest of the production. One can’t help but wonder if its inclusion was solely for the purposes of sneaking the amusing (and it was amusing) cross-dressing gag in somehow.
Its 1920s, jazz bar setting was very unique. Though in the prologue, and in later scenes in Petruchio’s house, the backdrop was what looked to be a large, white bed sheet, this hid a very atmospheric bar setting complete with live musicians and instruments, which when visible was incredibly atmospheric. The choice of period allowed for some truly breathtaking 20s costumes, the full length white wedding flapper dress deserving special mention.
The acting and direction brought to life the crude yet hysterical Shakespearean repartee and innuendo for a modern audience. Josh Williams (Tranio) seemed to own the stage with his near pantomime impression of his upper class master, complete with monocle and cane. Though his clarity was lost at times, his accent changes between personas were impressively sharp. Special mention must go to the highly energetic and dynamic performance of Sam Westwood (Hortensio), whose comic facial expressions in combination with dreadful attempts at guitar tuning rendered his suit for Bianca comically endearing. Izzy Mitchell (Gremio) had the most to overcome in terms of the age difference and gender barrier, yet managed to elicit a considerable amount of the laughs from the audience. She perfected the disgruntled, grumpy, slightly suspicious frown and sigh of an older man to perfection.
The incredibly dynamic and physical nature of the performance means that The Taming of the Shrew appeals even to those who dislike the Shakespearean language of the script, or find it hard to follow. The cast are clearly very comfortable with each other, their ease rendering many scenes hugely entertaining. This physicality however can detract from the script itself, the stage action overbearing on the delivery of lines and words. This was particularly obvious in the opening scenes, where clarity is of the upmost importance for comprehension of the later action, and some of the interchanges between Katharina and Petruchio were lost to their spirited table chase.
Female leads Rebecca Cadman (Katharina) and Connie O’Connor (Bianca) fiercely defended the female gender. The two portrayed a very realistic sibling relationship, and very much suited the contrasting roles they had been cast. O’Connor embodied the angelic evil of Bianca with skill. The ‘shrew-like’ nature of Katharina, and the high energy stage movement, made the emotional and vulnerable side Cadman allowed to surface at times more potent, and she is to be commended for playing such a varied and changing part so well.
This contrasting vulnerability, while moving, was not evident enough in her final submission to Petruchio, retaining her sarcasm and spirit in a way that jars with her closing monologue. It is not until her final speech that Katharina appears tamed at all, and with the content of her speeches and the plot, this doesn’t quite fit. That being said, the final scene was very cleverly staged in order to equalize men and women, rather than merely depicting male triumph. Petruchio kneels with Katharina on the floor, a recognition of his equal change, even taming, through his marriage to Katharina, and of his equal subordination and commitment to her.
Given the nature of the relationship, Katharina and Petruchio are hard roles to play to a modern audience. Credit must be given to Tim Blore as Petruchio. Paired well with Cadman, he executes the tyrannical and brutish lines almost too charismatically, captivating the audience’s attention throughout longer monologues with ease. His acting varies from a chillingly confident flirt to a deranged, flailing despot. A diverse and complex role, this distinction could perhaps have been made more exaggerated given the importance of his own shrew-likeness for the more modern message Courtney Cliffe appears to want to draw from the play.
Watching The Taming of the Shrew through a modern lens is an experience, and directing and performing it is quite a feat. I highly recommend this performance, if not to deeply consider the power dynamic of gender relations and Cliffe’s intelligent direction of a difficult script, then because it is incredibly funny and well worth watching.
At The Assembly Rooms, until Sun 26th April.
Photography: Laura Chapman