The Old Vic had a marathon press event yesterday as all-male theatre company Propeller gave its two Shakespeare productions their London premieres. In the first, Edward Hall and his players gave their take on probably Shakespeare’s most sexist play, The Taming Of The Shrew. Caroline Bishop went to see this vibrant, colourful and fast-paced production and found herself squirming in her seat…
Director Hall’s production uses the framework in which the drunken tinker Christopher Sly dreams the events of a play, called The Taming Of The Shrew. In a nutshell, Shrew tells the story of a father, Baptista, with two daughters whom he wishes to marry off. Though the younger, prettier Bianca, has several suitors, he will not allow her to wed until a spouse can be found for her older, somewhat bolshy, sister Katherine – the so-called ‘shrew’. Bianca’s suitors join forces and persuade the arrogant and equally bolshy Petruchio to woo Katherine and marry her, so they can fight over Bianca. Petruchio dispenses with the wooing, instead persuading Baptista that he’d be a good sparring partner for his eldest, marrying her against her will and going about the task of knocking her (quite literally) into the wifely shape of “household Kate”. Disguise, misunderstanding, musical interludes and eclectic costumes (platform spats anyone?) help the plot and the subplots along the way.
Propeller is an all-male company so, true to Shakespeare’s day, the female parts are played by men, looking distinctly like the Ugly Sisters. Bianca (Jon Trenchard) is a simpering, eyelash-fluttering whinger, while Kate (Simon Scardifield) is a brooding, feisty cat who lashes out like a caged animal.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Petruchio is a supremely confident, sexual, testosterone-fuelled male who struts about with his chest on display like a peacock splaying its feathers, turning up late to his wedding wearing a leopard-print thong. He sees Kate as a lion to be tamed and treats her with a violence that amounts to torture – dragging her about, denying her food and water, effectively abusing and humiliating her into submission. In this production Shakespeare’s words are only the half of it. Hall does not hold back on the physical aggression, and despite (or perhaps exacerbated by) the humour that pervades the production – and there is much – it is uncomfortable viewing to see a man treat a woman (or indeed anyone) like that. What stands out here is that Petruchio seems to feel no love for Kate, he has nothing to redeem him; he is simply a bully engaging in a power-struggle and his feeble attempts to justify his behaviour just do not cut it. Kate, meanwhile, is just a girl forced to tow the line in a sexist world, whose desire to simply be herself and have an opinion is classed as ‘shrewness’. The sight of forlorn, bedraggled, submissive Kate at the end makes any free-thinking woman will her to finish the play by socking Petruchio in his tightly-clad balls; unfortunately she doesn’t.
This play always sits uncomfortably in today’s world, but Hall and Propeller have courted particular discussion by producing the play in this very physical way.