The Taming of the Shrew isn’t for everyone, especially for the progressively minded feminist who disagrees with the idea that a feisty, independent woman can be ‘tamed’ using tactics that Guantanamo Bay residents would find familiar. A triumph of the female against a male oppressor in a deeply conservative society this is certainly not. In fact, Lucy Bailey’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (like many others) does not even try to present small victories or the actions of the men as wrong. This production in Richmond, South West London is the fourth stop on a nationwide tour that began in Stratford.
Rather than being ignored completely or only given a brief introduction at the start, the Christopher Sly element is a vital component of the play. Bailey’s vision of setting the entire play on a humungous bed evocates the fact that this is all playing out his drunken stupor before him in the bed he is lying in. The set is impressively designed by Ruth Sutcliffe as the bed literally fills up the entire performance area. Nick Holder’s turn as Sly is funny and is not ‘filler’ as it is with other productions that feel obliged to include it. Between scenes you see him rolling and running (in various states of undress) around the bed chasing his love interest, whilst jazz and brass instruments play in the background. Indeed Bailey’s true triumph is successfully integrating Sly into the play, rather than doing away with him or relegating him to a sideshow.
Choosing to set the story in 1940s Italy is a masterstroke, as social boundaries and conventions were equally conservative and male dominated as Medieval Padua (watch Godfather I & II to confirm this). It also allows costume designer Janet Dench to play around with a range of styles that are effective and give each character an individual feel. The setting is also convenient as it allows music to play a very prominent role. From all over the stage, brass bands enter. The staging is brash, physical and crude, with couples having sex behind shutters, in the bed and ultimately, sex is what seems to tame the shrew. Even Bianca, the virginal princess type who is meant to be the ultimate antithesis of Kate gets in on the action and is manipulative and gets what she wants. Again, this side plot is played up and has a prominent role, and Bailey obviously appreciated the race for Bianca (seductively played by Elizabeth Cadweller) as the ultimate prize and motive. Elsewhere Huss Garbiya and Simon Gregor shine as Biondello and Grumio respectively, playing up their own attributes as to why they deserve Bianca.
On to the main plot itself, Petruchio and Kate are portrayed as very similar and very different. Both are ‘going off the rails’ on booze and don’t have a care in the world, and the way they act, brawl and deliver their lines shows how much they are meant to be together. Of course this takes a dramatic turn after Petruchio essentially abducts Kate and tortures/brainwashes her, and the different tone in the second half reflects this. These scenes are at odds with the rest of the play as a very physical and musical play give way to relative quiet and intimacy. However, Shakespeare wrote these to provide the moral ambiguity the play thrives on, but Bailey could have done more to liven this up. Lisa Dillon as Kate has great stage presence, swearing, spitting and yelling at everyone, but her screams and vocal delivery wear you down after a while and sounds unnatural. She has great chemistry with David Cave’s Petruchio, who is excellent, but more could have been done to cast them as rebellious outsiders as opposed to two very annoying teenagers who just play along with the system.
Where this production comes up short is in the emotional point it is trying to convey—what was the lesson (if any) to be learned? The RSC are naturally a bit more traditional with the way they stage productions, but Bailey is imaginative and can come up with grand concepts such as this. This production is relevant and feels modern, with the sharp lighting, sound and music and costumes, but the emotional legacy is not there. It does not want to form a judgement, and the close of the play is confusing. Dillon never changes personas, despite being ‘tamed’, so we can never feel sorry for her, or support her, as her new role as doting and obedient wife is not reflected in Kate’s delivery, dress or manners. Most of this is the text itself, but more thought could have gone in the ending as opposed to leaving it so open to interpretation.