Friday, 6 June 2008

The Taming of the Shrew

5 June 2008
RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Kiss Me Kate. And that's an order.

Stratford-upon-Avon is a wonderful place, and it’s not simply the fact that it’s the place to go for all things Shakespeare! It’s HOW on earth they’ve made it the place to go for all things Shakespeare. Because the whole legend has been built upon precious little evidence!

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and he died there, on the same date (but different years obviously). And that’s about it! He didn’t seem to spend much time there in between and there isn’t that much detail about what he did anywhere else either! His whole life story is based on sentences like “well, we think he was here then, so he might have visited this place or that place. His ‘birthplace’ in Stratford is only the place he might have been born and the date of his death is only the date when he might have died. William Shakespeare is buried there, but who was this person and what did he do? The only evidence we have of his writing is six signatures, so we know that he could write his name and that he did it six times! How do we know he wrote all those plays and sonnets? The original Hamlet for instance was only some 70 pages long. Between the 16th century and now it has become a five hour epic. Who did that? Well, this is a debate that has raged amongst scholars for centuries and frankly I can add no more to the debate, except to look around in wonder, every time I go to Stratford, about the huge industry that has been built on what is essentially hearsay!

But I’ll go along with it too because, down by the river in Stratford, when you spot it through the tourists and throngs of Americans, it is one of the most beautiful places you can be, and watching a play at the RSC there, is sublime. Whoever wrote the plays, however many people were involved in the process and however they have evolved over hundreds of years, what we have now are a collection of plays that say something and provide hours of enjoyment and discussion.

And The Taming of the Shrew is a play that certainly provokes discussion, especially if you go with a partner! The way that Petruchio “tames” the headstrong and wilful Katherine into being a dutiful wife is something that isn’t a very satisfying denouement in this day and age and you even wonder what Elizabeth I would have thought about it when it was written?

As Mr FB pointed out, it’s the only Shakespearean comedy he’s seen where he felt that there should be another scene. The one where Katherine lets on that she only let him think she was obeying him for a quiet life and really it was she who was in control and pulling all the strings – more like a modern day marriage! (I added the last bit!) I had already let him know that despite our two names being similar to theirs, not to get any ideas!

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the story, I enjoyed the RSC’ treatment of it, albeit brutal.

‘Dr Legg’s in it’ I remarked to Mr FB, amused by the fact that even the RSC had resorted to casting ex-soap stars. Although Leonard Fenton’s role was a very different kettle of fish from what was served up at the Gordon Craig (see last post!).

It’s a very lively opening where a stag do arrives in what appears a kind of Eastern European stag do heaven. From the shenanigans, emerges a drunk Christopher Sly who is persuaded to watch a group of travelling players perform the comedy. This they do in the traditional style, so that anyone dismayed by the modern opening was immediately appeased by boots and cloaks. But there is also some very clever use of props to dress the set, designed by Francis O’Connor, with models of Italian buildings that open up to be tables and the travellers truck that reverses onto the stage to collect the players.

The rest of the comedy is then performed with the usual Shakespearean suspension of disbelief to extract comic effect. For example, no one bats an eyelid that the sisters Katherine, and Bianca, expertly played by (Michelle Gomez and Amara Karan) were of different ethnicity, yet when the brilliantly funny Keir Charles as Tranio, dressed as Lucentio, needs someone to stand in as his father, he chooses a black man and maximum comic effect is made from the fact that he tries to speak with a Caribbean accent!

But while the Commedia del Arte influenced slapstick is highly enjoyable, the darkness of the play’s subject is brought right into focus by Stephen Boxer’s excellent cruel Petruchio who treats Katherine with violent brutality, starving her, dressing her in rags, depriving her of sleep and physically striking her. But she still becomes the dutiful wife. In fact, Gomez’ Kate is not just tamed, she is destroyed. She suddenly becomes cold and obedient in stark contrast from her opening scenes.

Walking back to the car provided us with the usual discussions that are a mark of a good experience. Was this a play of Shakespeare’s time or was he ahead of it? And why, if Shakespeare was so forward thinking, did he not see a time when women would be equal to men? But then, I guess that’s the point, they aren’t really. And when at the end of this production, all the characters reverted to contemporary dress, it can be seen as a sign that men’s dominance over women is neverending. After all, there are relationships now that are built on fear and where one partner is submissive because of the controlling nature of the other. I'm just glad I'm not one of them!

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