What: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: Thursday 16th February, 2012
In recent months, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of the Merchant of Venice and Macbeth have set classic texts against directorial decisions which have, in my view, hindered the audience’s ability to understand the plays’ original intent. In those cases, the plays in question were strong enough to survive and just about come on top of the directors’ ideas which threatened to smother them.
When you’re dealing one of the weaker plays in the Shakespearean canon and one that presents particular difficulties of understanding for a modern audience, would the same be true? Or would the Taming of the Shrew descend into a muddy but vibrant chaos?
The programme notes lets us know that director Lucy Bailey has recognised some of the problems in staging Taming of the Shrew in 2012. How for example do you stage a play where a central theme is a father’s shame at a daughter’s disobedience and unwillingness to marry, and set it in a society where to be unmarried carries less and less of a societal stigma? Bailey is aware of this and tells us that she has therefore decided to set the play in 1940s Italy. Now, the obvious selection would have been to set the play in Elizabethan Europe but 1940s Italy is an intriguing substitute.
But the play, after the introductory sequence with Christopher Sly, begins with our Kate entering in a Scold’s bridle. A Scold’s Bridle in 1940s Italy? I think not.
But Ms Bailey is keen to impress on us just how rebellious young Katherina is and this also causes her or her actors to overegg the pudding. Katherina spits on all and sundry with venom and later when engaged in back and forth with her suitor, Petruchio, she urinates on the floor. I suspect in 1940s Italy such behaviour would have seen such a young lady escorted to a local asylum. Even the kind of binge drinking women of 2012, that occasionally pop up in some ITV reality show aimed at showing the evils of society on Friday nights in urban England, would not countenance such behaviour.
So trapped somewhere between 1940 and 2012 in some never-did-exist Europe and required to deliver the closing speeches about how a husband only demands of his wife, only “love, fair looks and true obedience”, this production has a problem at its core and somehow or other Lisa Dillon as Katherina manages to stand amidst the chaos as one of the play’s partial triumphs.
So how did we arrive at this unusual juxtaposition of ideas, eras and images? Well, I think from a good opening premise. The director has recognised correctly that the bed is a central metaphor in some of the speeches that are keys to the play. This has led to her surprising decision to quite ingeniously transform the whole of the stage into a massive double bed with feather bedding upon which all of the action takes place.
The next step seems to have been the realisation that the bed provides a good cushion for physical comedy, ease of movement and light falls which would allow the cast to develop a very buoyant production which is alive with movement. On the downside the bedding also affects the acoustics in the venue, meaning that when Christopher Sly delivers some of his opening lines with his back to the audience, it is difficult to hear what he is saying even in the front rows of the stalls where I am seated.
Lisa Dillon’s performance is interesting because it points up where these opening ideas and the development of the production has gone wrong. Whether you see her closing speeches in the play as compromise or the giving into the patriarchal, misogynist society that surrounds her, it is utterly unbelievable to think they would have arisen from the character that she develops before the interval. The gap is just too wide, the production too farcical and the premise utterly unbelievable. Some of this is to do with the weaknesses of the play which will inhibit any production in the 21st century but they are stretched to breaking point by the physicality of this particular production.
So once again, I leave the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s building with the feeling that someone needs to reset the compass of the Company. Directorial freedom is great and gives an even greater freedom to the actors who perform under it to take risks but what is needed is directorial freedom that is sympathetic to the play (especially a weaker part of the canon such as this one) and places that sympathy to the text before the directorial innovations that are currently not helping the quality of the productions in leafy Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Few of the actors here rise above the untidy production and we are left with the feeling that what is required is an over-arching understanding of what the company is trying to achieve. The Royal Shakespeare Company was at the top of its game in the era of the Histories Cycle just five years ago. Now without that same sense of purpose, the Company is scoring high in novelty but nothing else.
The actors lack a convincing level of felt and thought through engagement with Shakespeare’s words as well as their director’s concept. They need to have both at the forefront of their minds. At the moment that seems a distant and unrealistic goal and perhaps a new beginning with a new ensemble like the one that was gathered for the Histories Cycle will be needed before the true quality of the plays once again emerge.