The Taming Of The Shrew is a notoriously difficult play; a Shakespearean comedy which deals with the systematic destruction of a woman’s spirit, personality and sense of worth. You wouldn’t laugh at the sight of a man beating his wife today, so why should it be alright in period costume?
In Conall Morrison’s Royal Shakespeare Company production, you don’t have to; during the course of the production, the comedy is drained away from the central pairing of Katherine and Petruchio and passed to the supporting players. So is any sense of love.
Unlike other productions of The Taming Of The Shrew, there is never any affection between the warring couple. Stephen Boxer’s brutish Petruchio, who is only ever interested in money and an easy life, systematically and clinically bullies his wife into submission, both mentally and physically. Michelle Gomez begins as the queen of physical comedy recognisable from television appearances in Green Wing, but soon the burning eyes become dead and watery as she realises there is no escape from her life of servitude.
Morrison has chosen to use the oft-discarded Christopher Sly framework for this production, in which a band of travelling players tells the story proper to a drunk who has been convinced he is a lord. This gives the rest of the cast the excuse to ham up performances and play up to expectations. Lovers swoon and dip, accents are interchangeable and musicians over play Conor Linehan’s score. Morrison fills this side of the plot with slapstick, lewd jokes and visual gags.
But all the comedy in the world – including Kier Charles’s Tranio, with his Eliza Doolittle cockney-does-posh accent – can’t, and shouldn’t, distract from the central destructive plot. By the end of the production Gomez’s utterly broken Katherine is just a shell, all lively exuberance and wit removed, entirely dominated by her abusive husband.
The point is underlined in the most disturbing fashion at the feast, when her still, silent anguish is displayed with more than a hand under Petruchio’s foot. The sight of leering, envious men in the background is both potent and sickening. So is the play.