By William Shakespeare
Directed by Conall Morrison
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Tuesday 10th June 2008
Fortunately, Steve checked the time of the performance, so we got here for the start. From the look of the stage, we’re getting the full Christopher tonight, and in modern dress. Signs for ‘fully licensed bars’, ‘hotel’ and ‘video exchange’ adorn a tower building at the back of the thrust, to our left. ‘Hotel’ is apparently a euphemism for knocking-shop, and the first signs of action are when a posh bird and Michelle Gomez have a minor altercation over money. Michelle appears to be the ‘hotel’ keeper, one Marion Hackett, and the posh bird is presumably her employer, who insists on getting every last farthing from her employee. After a short wordless exchange, Marion hands over the money she was hoping to keep for herself, and then the rowdies arrive.
It’s the stag do from hell. A bunch of men, of various ages (almost all the men in the cast, from what I could see), indulging in those pointless male activities such as shouting, doing silly dances, waving inflatable dolls about, and mooning the audience. Only they kept their knickers on. How tame. Christopher Sly is almost part of the group – he looks like he’s joining in even though he may not know anyone, you know the type. However, he is the one who accosts the pole dancer, and gets thrown out by the bouncer, and….did Shakespeare really write this stuff?
Well, now the dialogue gets going it’s recognizable as Will’s work. We’ve already had some spicy language from Marion Hackett as she leans out of her window during the stag party, making a mobile phone call that included lines like “not another denarius” and “cunt…ry”. (Must be the bad quarto.) From Sly’s ejection, we’re back with a recognizable plot, and he’s left to snooze off his drunkenness in a cleaner’s cart. Along comes the posh bird with her huntsmen, all East End boys from the sounds of it, and she gets the idea to mess with Sly’s mind. There’s a nice connection here with her being a lady (not sure if it’s an official title or just a description), and also the vice madam. Made her dosh from porn and sleaze, and now she’s gone up in the world (after years of going down, no doubt). It emphasises the topsy-turvy nature of status in the worlds of the play – Sly is down, then up, then down. Let’s not get too philosophical though – the play continues, and by this time I was starting to get into it a lot more.
The trick is set up, with the posh bird arranging things with her servants. I’d noticed one of the actors this afternoon had quite a feminine face, and he’s the one who ends up playing Sly’s ‘wife’. He looked very fetching in an acid green slip and blond wig, so it’s no surprise when Sly wants to make it up to her for all the years she hasn’t had him in her bed. There’s some chasing around that bed before a swift punch fells Sly, and when he wakes up he’s persuaded to hold off on the sex for a bit, as his doctors don’t think it’s a good idea so early in the day. I wasn’t sure this Sly would go along with it, but he does.
While he was being prepared for the next bit, off stage, the actors arrive. It’s done beautifully, with the right hand side of the back flats opening to allow the rear end of a lorry to reverse into the gap, complete with beeping noises. The tail of this lorry has “The Players” emblazoned across it, in the style of the RSC logo, and underneath are the words “comical”, “tragical”, “historical”, “pastoral” (Hamlet, in case you were wondering). At the end, as the lorry takes the actors away, I wondered if the licence plate was also connected in some way. We may never know.
As the ramp is lowered, the actors appear, huddled in the back of the lorry. With several bounds, they were free, and boy did they bound. Mainly the younger actors, it must be said, who pranced around the stage doing their warm-up exercises while the older actors took their time, and the baby-face who becomes Sly’s pseudo-wife listens to his iPod. This bit was entertaining for us, but even more entertaining for a group up in the gallery to our left, who hooted with laughter very loudly at all the antics. I suspect they were friends, family, fellow actors, etc., and I did find it distracting at first, but later I was caught up in the performance and it wasn’t so noticeable. (Steve reckons someone had had a word.)
Having persuaded Sly to forgo sex for the theatre (am I the only one who thinks that’s a fair trade?), the actors trundle on some cute mini Italian style houses, some benches and stools, and the tower in the corner is rotated to show a couple of ornate doors with awnings. The flats at the back are changed behind the tower (the lorry is still backed onto the stage at this point) to show a jumble of Paduan houses, and then Lucentio and Tranio are unleashed to start the ball rolling. Steve spotted that Lucentio had a wrist-sundial, very fetching. He also has an overly dramatic style, but he does get the lines across, while Tranio, common as muck, does his best to support him. Sly and baby-face are watching from the walkway to our right, lying down so as not to get in anyone’s sightline.
The encounters between the Minola family and Bianca’s suitors were fairly straightforward. Michelle Gomez managed to combine truly awful behaviour with a sense that Katherine is right to feel badly treated, or at least to have a regular strop every few minutes, which is a neat trick. It’s easy to see why the men in her vicinity are scared of her. Once they’ve left, and Lucentio and Tranio have swapped jackets (sadly, they rarely opt to do the full monty anymore), it’s time for Petruchio to enter. The lady’s servants bring Sly back centre stage, present him with a paperback of the text, and change his clothes. After a few false starts, Sly hits his stride, and Petruchio appears before us! It was nicely done, especially the change of accent.
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly became so during the wooing scene that this was going to be a very physical performance. How those two are going to end the run without being black and blue I don’t know. It wasn’t all to my taste, but they did create a lot of humour out of the encounter, and they certainly allowed the darker side full rein too. Grumio had already been well pummelled, so we knew Petruchio had a temper. Now he’s keen to unleash it on Kate. One thing to mention in passing was the comic expressions, particularly the one on Baptista Minola’s face when Petruchio announces he wants to marry Katherine. Joy mixed with incredulity – he just can’t believe his luck.
The story rattled along at a good pace. Petruchio’s outfit for the wedding isn’t as described by Biondello, but it’s pretty gruesome nonetheless, including streaks of blood on his lower half, where he seems to be wearing the remains of a frock. Instead of drawing swords to protect Kate, Grumio produces cutlery, and not the sharp stuff either – spoons? Petruchio carries Kate off, and the rest are happy to let him.
Back at chez Petruchio, the staff are roundly abused, as usual, and there’s certainly a greater sense that they might actually get hit this time. When Petruchio asks for his cousin Ferdinand, so that Kate could greet him with a kiss, I had visions of an ugly, slobbering brute being led on, but Ferdinand is one character we never get to meet. In fact, I think this is the first time I noticed the line.
The knockabout humour continues, with no remarkable pieces of staging that I could see, until the end of the play. The final wedding feast is in modern dress. Kate’s final speech is a bit difficult to figure out. She seems to have been cowed by Petruchio’s treatment, but not as much as I’ve seen before. However, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere when Petruchio gets his own way, and this lasts until the play within the play is over. Then, the tables are turned, as Sly is returned to harsh reality, and Kate/Marion heads off with the actors to start a new career. As the women change, they treat Sly with contempt, and although there’s no dialogue, this does help to offset the sour taste of the traditional ending. It was as if Sly has been allowed to indulge his fantasy of getting the better of a woman, and they’re making it clear at the end that he has no chance of doing that in real life.
From a quick glance at the program notes, this production is based on commedia dell’arte techniques and themes, hence the physical work and the non-exploration of the psychological areas. There’s some good stuff here, though it’s not my favourite version of the play. Still, it’s nice to see a completely different style of staging, and to expand our understanding of the background in which these plays were written.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me