Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 1 May, 2008

Conall Morrison's production is the most deliberately unpleasant version of this play that I have seen in performance. However, one's disquiet at the unremitting sexual hostility gives way to a similar unsettlement at not being able to see Morrison's point. The production has power, but I'm blowed if I can see where it's directed.
Laughter tends to die in our throats after the interval, when it becomes unmistakable that Petruchio (Stephen Boxer)'s method of "taming" Kate is not a perverse stratagem that he adopts but rather an indulgence of his own psychosis. When Kate gives in to him, it is neither capitulation to her lord and master nor (as increasingly played now) a coming together in happy collusion; no, this is the realisation that her survival depends on humouring him at any cost. Michelle Gomez is a natural Kate, terrifyingly comic in her initial tantrums, like the offspring of Diamanda Galás and Hylda Baker. Gomez also brings heft to the latter phase: we see her acquire a worrying stillness, her eyes always fixed somewhere beyond her physical surroundings, and when she delivers her final speech, advocating wifely subjection to the play's other two brides, she does so with the paralysed acquiescence of a former minister reciting his spurious confession at a Stalinist show trial.
So, this is a sex war. And an all-out war, as well: in that final scene, the other two couples are at daggers drawn, wives as well as husbands… why? What is behind the gradual modernisation of costume from doublet-and-hose to broadly contemporary (although there are always blips; why?) just as hostilities reach their climax? Is it intended to suggest that sexism has not improved at all over the centuries? Really, not one bit? Or is it all part of the prank played on Christopher Sly – for here, the play's often-jettisoned Induction (in which an unconscious drunkard is dressed as a nobleman and on his awakening is codded that his memories of life as a tinker are the lingering effects of a madness) is taken up again at the close, with Sly/Petruchio stripped of his finery by the Lady (not a Lord in this version) and her retinue, and left to shiver alone and ashamed? And why does the Lady double, without a costume change, as one of Kate's "opponent" brides? When black actor Larrington Walker is cast as a merchant who impersonates a white character's father, is Morrison making a point about racism as well as sexism (a point which is too subtle for the audience to spot, as evidenced by peals of uncomplicated laughter at black and white characters doing the same cartoon Jamaicanisms), or has he a great blind spot as to how this reverberates upon the sexual prejudice? As I say, blowed if I know.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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