A new production of Taming of the Shrew faces two major challenges. The first is a question of how to approach the domestic violence and misogyny that features so prominently in the play, and the second is how to dramatise the play within a play aspect. Director Conall Morrison’s approach to both of these challenges is deliberate and striking, and while this produces an interesting performance, it isn’t altogether convincing.
In the opening scene we meet Sly (Stephen Boxer), set in a modern Scottish inner city, with nightclubs and raucous stag parties overtaking the stage. Although the stag party seems a little unnecessary, setting Sly in modern times and the main play in period costume works well. Particularly effective is the way that the initial scenes in Italy are so clearly presented as a play. The characters from the scenes with Sly sit in boxes or on the edge of the stage watching the light-hearted, whimsical performance. The ‘players’ arrive in Elizabethan costume, out the back of a large lorry that reverses on stage and to the tune of rousing Italian music. This transformation works well to reinforce the concept that the initial characters are still overlooking the action. Consequently, the point at which Boxer transforms from his role as Sly to Petruchio only seems unusual for a few moments. Soon enough this transition doesn’t present a problem and Boxer’s confident, yet appealing Petruchio becomes the focus, while he as Sly is somewhat forgotten. Boxer’s Petruchio is natural and relaxed, yet with an authoritative manner. There is a strange affability about him in his initial scenes that intrigues and as the play develops, causes the audience to question their own initial character judgments.
Kate, played by Michelle Gomez, is instantly captivating, offering a provocative performance, not only through the delivery of her lines, but in her posture and affronting nature. This Kate is feisty and full of fire, but does not appear vicious or uncompromising; the subtle edge of tenderness that Gomez gives her portrayal is important when considered later in the play against the action of Petruchio. This more complex Kate offers additional depth to their relationship. The blatantly youthful Amar Karan gives a pleasant portrayal of Bianca, regardless of the relatively benign nature of the part.
Bianca’s suitors, Gremio (Peter Shorey) and Hortensio (Sean Kearns) are a wonderful twosome, and their comedic timing and physical comedy are marvelously effective. Their own blatant "maturity" offers a bit of discomfort as they fight over the love of a very very young Bianca, the unrealistic nature of the match only underscored when comparing them to the third, younger, more attractive and disguised suitor Tranio, played by Keir Charles.
Charles' performance whilst disguised as Lucentio is the comedic highlight of the evening. His strange accent and deliberately awkward poses are hilarious and in a way it is ridiculous, but because of this, he is beguiling. Larrington Walker's "Merchant" receives as much if not more laughter from the audience, yet his characterization seems juxtaposed to the rest of the performance. And Jack Laskey's small but vital role as Biondello (Lucentio's servant) is slightly reckless but lovable, and Laskey sparkles every time he appears on stage.
One of the greatest achievements of this production is its ability to set the scene. Great efforts are made during any significant scene change, including much activity on stage, and bright, lively music helping to firmly plant the audience in the new place, time or wherever they may be. The music (composed by Conor Linehan) is marvelous and uplifting throughout, offering flexibility, versatility, and whimsy.
This production is lusty, not only in the initial scene when Kate and Petruchio meet, but also as Bianca and Lucentio “meet and woo.” This is present in the text, and Morrison exploits these references, making them the visual focus and playing them purely for their humorous potential.
Much of the excitement at the start of this production unfortunately dwindles as the play reaches its conclusion The greatest disappointment is the strange and slow transition that occurs, linking this play within a play back to the initial scene with Christopher Sly who is set in modern times. From the point where Petruchio leads his household back to Padua, up until the final banquet scene, the characters gradually change from their traditional period costume to modern day dress. During the banquet, the two different realities merge, as if all had been a dream. This is overall confusing, and it's almost as though they've mistaken themselves for some Midsummer mischief. The costume transition acts as a distraction leading up to this point, and the final scene then feels disconnected to the narrative. The result feels far too conspicuous.
Much of this production plays on ideas of juxtaposition, such as the high comedy of most scenes against the deliberate seriousness in scenes between Kate and Petruchio, or the initial difference between modern day Scotland and Renaissance Italy. Whilst the ambitious approach to the play within a play does not seem to work very well in the end, the general sense of playfulness and joviality does much to compensate.