Seen on 16 October, 2003

Nicola McAuliffe as Katherina in The Taming Of The Shrew. Just say the words, and you know pretty much what you're going to get, and that it will be good: intelligent and complex, yet not without fun even amid this most problematic of Shakespeare's plays for a modern audience. McAuliffe's Kate has grown so truculent and froward because her much younger sister, Bianca, has been spoiled rotten and knows how to exploit it; their father deprecates Kate to her face and at one point sends her tumbling to the floor, leaving her with a limp for the next couple of acts. This Kate professes her love of husband Petruchio in the end not because he has ground her into submission through his stratagems, nor as a tactic in an ongoing campaign, but because, in the mere fact of paying attention to her, he has awakened in her an entire range of emotions hitherto unconceived-of.

Ross Kemp as Petruchio. Just say the words, and you know pretty much what you're going to get. And you're dead wrong. This Petruchio is not a bullet-headed ageing boot-boy hollering, "OI! KATE! SHUT IT!" The former EastEnders anti-hero goes to great lengths to play against type. He adopts an RP accent, dresses in shooting tweeds and puts much thought into delivering the verse as verse, to admirable effect.

Unfortunately, Kemp lacks the stage skills to pull off such a wholesale reinvention, and his awareness of this generates a lack of confidence which hampers his performance further. Away from the close-range naturalistic acting of television, he either over-exaggerates (as with his eyebrows, forever wildly a-bounce) or fumbles (as with his hands, not quite knowing what to do with them).

Mark Rosenblatt's touring production for Plymouth's Theatre Royal (which I saw in Guildford) also has a strong supporting cast including the likes of Michael Matus as an effeminate Tranio and Robert Goodale as a salesman roped into the other strand of the marriage-plot. However, Rosenblatt does not yet have the directorial deftness to resolve the glaring contradiction in style and approach between his two leads. The production, like the play, is a battle between an intelligent, independent Kate and a Petruchio who goes too far; and in the production, as in the play, it's Petruchio who wins, not by merit or strategy but by attrition.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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