THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Oxford Playhouse/touring
Opened 17 October, 1998

To get the central question out of the way first: yes, she realises and goes along with it. The first issue which any production must confront is whether Kate is to be truly subdued by Petruchio's stratagems, or whether she is to ally herself with him on a more equal footing. Kacey Ainsworth, in Stephen Unwin's lucid production for English Touring Theatre, treads the latter path.
This is a modern-dress, broad-accented production, to the extent that at certain moments during their more animated spats, Ainsworth and David Cardy sound less like Petruchio and Kate than Grant and Tiffany Butcher. It works, though. Andrew French's Grumio is a homeboy, Grant Gillespie's Biondello a rather fey Scouser, and Hortensio having disguised himself as a music tutor to get closer to Kate's sister Bianca strums not upon a lute but a Fender Stratocaster.

Matters threaten at every moment to tip over into gratuitous gimmickry, but thankfully never do so. Olly Fox's score makes brilliant use of musical samples including Blur, Space, Iggy Pop and even The Spice Girls, but employs them for the mere hint of familiarity they bestow whilst reincorporating them into a brash, uplifting noise. When Petruchio turns up to his wedding dressed as a punk in torn leathers and bondage strides, it is not simply shocking and improper to the oldies but embarrassingly naff for Kate. Later, it is a mark of how starved she is that she is even glad to wolf down what she can get of a takeaway pizza.

By the time the couple journey back to her father's house, it is plain that although Petruchio is still working on her, Kate knows what's what and is cheerfully humouring him; her climactic speech to the two other newlywed wives on submission to their husbands, though, inhabits a strange no-man's-land, seeming both bluffly no-nonsense and at the same time substantially sincere. Although this rehabilitated Kate remains plausibly human and has plainly had none of her joie de vivre wrung out of her, what we see is the character of her transformation, not its core; it is as if we are shown the Before and After, but the pivotal moment happens offstage. Does she rumble Petruchio? Does he come clean to her? Does she simply come to respect him as a kindred spirit? Unwin's production does not run away from this central narrative problem, nor does he stumble at it rather, he niftily sidesteps it whilst distracting our attention with some admirably fleet footwork.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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