In The Taming Of The Shrew, the techniques Petruchio uses to break Kate of her frowardness (including starvation and sleep deprivation) would called torture in Guantanamo or Iraq. Yet there is something about the couple’s condition in the final act or so which in many productions strikes us as a harmony arising out of informed consent. It is often the attempted reconcilement of these opposing strains wherein directors show their mettle.
At the interval, I was looking on Rachel Kavanaugh’s mid-20th-century-dressed production as a glory of its kind. She does not handle the awkward pitches of the second half with the same aplomb, but her production remains both intelligent and enjoyable, and at some gut level downright gratifying. For here, John Hodgkinson’s cool, measured Petruchio and Sirine Saba as a daunting yet fundamentally open Kate are comprehensively and consistently in love. He might have had mercenary motives in presenting himself as a suitor, but from the moment he first turns in mid-sentence to look on her it is clear that his amorous praise is heartfelt; she holds out for a couple of minutes more verbal sparring, until she succumbs to the exhilaration of meeting a knowing equal, at once playful and powerful.
Their subsequent relationship unfolds in this light: there is difficulty, there is some flagrant abuse, but both are committed to making whatever it is that they have work. Kavanaugh also suggests that Petruchio is a hell-raising alcoholic who ultimately and unbidden swears off the juice for love; it’s the kind of idea that may have little or no textual basis but can illuminate a performance. Likewise, Kate’s crucial moment of submission in Act Four (“moon, or sun, or what you please”) is played as a paradoxical moment of her triumph, with Petruchio prostrating himself in gratitude for her indication that the war is over… an interpretation which is immensely engaging in the moment of performance, but damned difficult to justify by textual argument. (An added delightful irony is that, of course, on such an evening in Regent’s Park, Petruchio is wrong and it is the moon that shines so bright.)
The multiple disguises and stratagems of the wooing of Kate’s sister Bianca (Sheridan Smith, quite certain that she’s daddy’s favourite) proceed pacily and enjoyably, but as always it is the central couple by whom the production is judged, and here they are first-rate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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