The Taming Of The Shrew – January 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 26th January 2012

For an early performance, this wasn’t bad. We were right round the side in Row D, so although we inevitably missed some things, we did get a reasonable idea of the whole production, and as we’re seeing it again soon we can hopefully catch up on what we missed. And given that it’s early in the run and they’ve had to adjust to an accident which has meant recasting one of the actresses, they may well come on quite a bit for an extra couple of weeks.

We went to the director’s talk on Tuesday, so we were aware that the overall production concept was the marital bed. From a talk earlier today by Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson we learned that a previous experience of watching Henry V had been incorporated into this production by means of a brown cloth area. So it was that we were confronted by a massive hump of mattress and brown cover, raising the level of the RST stage enough so that we couldn’t see the faces of the people across from us. What this was like for the people in Row A I’ve no idea; I do know that one woman asked to move further back because she couldn’t see, and she had started in row B! (They found her another seat, bless ‘em.)

The back of the stage was covered by a curtain in some nondescript brownish colour. From this, a lumpy ramp (pillows) led down to the stage floor. The cast had some difficulty travelling down this ramp at times; although it wasn’t nearly as steep as the Heart of Robin Hood ramp, it was still difficult enough to suggest why a broken ankle had happened so early in the run. When the curtains were drawn back, we could see wooden panels behind them, which turned out to be multi-faceted doors – they could open wide top to bottom or smaller panels within them could be opened as needed. There was also a space behind these in which several of the cast waited to appear for various scenes. I noticed the servant types early on, but I’ve no idea if we could see them because of our acute angle or if they were visible from the front. Time will tell.

The time period for this production was post WWII in Italy, a setting which allowed for the sort of attitudes towards women which would fit with the play, and yet be contemporary enough for an audience to relate to. We had also learned from the director’s talk that the induction would feature prominently in this production, and it did. There was music and a rumpus behind the curtain, and then Christopher Sly was thrown out of the pub, rolling down the slope to land on the stage. I didn’t follow much of the dialogue for this bit, and I was a bit worried that I might not hear enough of the lines to enjoy myself, but it turned out to be only a short spell at the start, thank goodness. Sly ended up near the front of the stage, asleep or comatose, and then the bar staff and customers turned into dogs and started having a go at Sly’s body. Fortunately the huntsmen turned up in time and called them off, and the Lord also arrived, fresh from some hunting. I recall some discussion of the relative merits of a couple of hounds, and then the Lord spotted the sleeping Sly. As he came up with his plan to give Sly a fantasy makeover, I found myself thinking that this play has a strong theme of people learning their place, both in terms of gender and class. I also reckoned that Will might have been saying to those that would listen that the only things differentiating a lord from the common people were his clothes and the way people treated him.

There were plenty of servants in this production, but even so they could hardly move Sly, who was stoutly built. They did manage to get his outer clothes off, and despite his existing smell, and the additional burden of a loud fart, they had him snug in bed in no time in a corner of the stage. We had a few laughs during this part, especially when one servant waved his smoking censer in the vicinity of the bed after the fart.

The plans for the masquerade were pretty long-winded, but we got the gist. Bartholomew, the servant who was to play Sly’s ‘Lady’ had been sent off with the players, and was back again sorting out the curtains when he was taken away to become a woman. Meantime everyone else was fawning over Sly, and doing their best to convince him he was indeed a lord. When he asked if he had ever spoken in the fifteen years he had been out of his wits, only one man answered, and everyone looked at him; he was really on the spot. He got out of it well, though, and after this Sly seemed to be convinced that they were telling the truth. Then his ‘Lady’ arrived, and she looked very fetching indeed. She wasn’t too happy when the rest left him alone with Sly on his command, and despite several attempts to get out of the room, she eventually had to reason her way out of it.

There was plenty of crudity in this production, and here it took the form of Sly masturbating when he found he couldn’t have sex with his ‘wife’; I don’t mind it as such, but I’m not sure if it’s necessary to make the point. Anyway, Sly and his wife settled down in one of the front corners to watch the players, pulling the bedspread over them. I did wonder how good the view would be for anyone over that way; it might be us next time.

With the play proper starting, the doors at the back opened up and for the first time we saw sunshine. Lucentio was a bookish sort, definitely wet behind the ears, while Tranio was OK but not as well defined as some I’ve seen. When they stood to one side it was because of the music; a brass band heralded the arrival of Baptista Minola and his daughters, while I had already noticed Gremio lurking around the doors at the back.

The music and procession went on for some time, and when we finally saw Kate I realised that she had been taken round the streets in a scold’s fiddle – a fiddle-shaped form of the stocks which went round a person’s neck and held the wrists in two other holes to one side; a nasty implement for publicly humiliating someone who didn’t conform to society’s norms. This was quite a shocking image to deal with early on, and I felt the comic tone of the rest of the scene jarred slightly with this entrance. Once out of the ‘fiddle’ though, Kate soon took her revenge, and there were few characters left on stage who didn’t feel the force of her anger. The reason for the ‘fiddle’ was also evident; one poor chap had been walking behind her with his face bandaged up, clearly one of her previous victims. And also a current one, as she got in a good swipe at him again.

Bianca was slightly taller than Kate, and looked all demure and innocent, but we women know how these things work and Kate’s comment about sticking a finger in your eye was clearly based on knowledge – Bianca milked the sympathy vote for all it could give. I don’t know if they dropped Lucentio and Tranio’s asides, or if I just didn’t hear them as they were on the other side of a very busy stage. We did get to hear their lines after everyone else had left, and Lucentio was wonderfully silly, skipping around like a new-born lamb with delight at the thought of his love. Tranio was more practical, as ever, and fortunately they were a similar size, so swapping clothes wasn’t a problem. Sadly, they left it at the jackets and hats tonight – no trousers were removed.

After a comment or two from Sly the play continued with Petruchio’s arrival. At the talk this morning, Michael Dobson had passed on a comment from one of his daughters that if David Caves took his shirt off, he’d do fine as Petruchio. He did take his shirt off later as it happened, but I think it only fair to point out that even before that action sealed his performance, he was already doing pretty well fully dressed. The doors at the back had been closed, and during the fight with Grumio, Petruchio battered at it with Grumio’s head (Simon Gregor used his forearm to thump the door – one of the advantages of the side view). The Ulster accents of both men worked very well; they not only indicated they were relative outsiders to this community, but a sense of wildness and unpredictability came with it which suited the characters down to the ground. Petruchio certainly seemed wild, and definitely only interested in money at this stage, but would that change?

A nice touch with Hortensio was to have him a bit phobic about bodily fluids. When Petruchio spat on his hand before they shook on their deal, Hortensio took it willingly enough but wiped his hand immediately afterwards, and also put his handkerchief on the ground before he sat beside Petruchio on the ramp. He also put in a lovely pause after “Her only fault” when describing Kate; we filled in the gap and obligingly laughed. The gathering of the suitors was good fun too, and soon they were off a-wooing.

For the next scene, Kate came through the doors first, smoking. No sign of Bianca. She did turn up, though, bound hand and foot, and with something in her mouth. She had to hop through the door, and roll down the ramp before spitting out the gag and getting into the fight with her sister. They went at it pretty hard, and Baptista had to break things up before Kate smothered Bianca with a pillow. Of course Bianca did her victim number again – bitch – but she showed her true nature with lots of rude gestures at Kate behind their father’s back.

With the girls off stage the suitors turned up, and this was another entertaining run through the various characters, many of whom were in disguise. I always love the way Baptista responds to Petruchio’s first question – “Pray, have you not a daughter call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?” with “I have a daughter, sir, call’d Katherina”. This was as good as usual, and as Steve pointed out, it’s just the sort of thing comedy writers are doing nowadays.

The tutors were presented, and Baptista gave the books to the musician and the lyre to the academic. They exchanged the gifts when they left the stage to go to Baptista’s daughters, and soon we heard the sound of a lute, played not very well, coming from behind the doors. We also heard the sound of the lute being broken over Hortensio’s head, and he re-emerged shortly afterwards to show us the damage. This whetted Petruchio’s appetite, and he was really keen to meet this woman who might actually be worth his while. I wasn’t sure about Baptista’s reactions to some of this part as he had his back to us for most of it, so I’m hoping to get a better view of that next time.

Kate came through the doors and kept herself aloof beside them, smoking again and with a hip flask. I got the impression that Petruchio was taken with her on first sight, whether by her looks or her attitude I couldn’t tell. They were soon sparring verbally, although Kate took a long pause before one of her early responses, and there were plenty of sexual references in the physical actions accompanying their joust. Petruchio mirrored Kate’s actions whenever she threw a tantrum, like banging on the doors, and this made her stop what she was doing; it was clearly the first time she’d met someone who wasn’t frightened or put off by her behaviour. Although he threatened to hit her if she struck him again, he didn’t beat her up, just had a fun time wrestling with her. She seemed to realise pretty quickly that she couldn’t get the better of him physically – he was a good deal taller than her – so she stuck to words, and even there he kept going past her ability to respond. She did seem to find his body attractive as well, so I was aware that they were potentially well matched, which made the dialogue easier to accept.

There was another unpleasant moment during this confrontation, when Kate, on the left walkway, lifted up her skirt and apparently peed on the floor. Of course it was faked, and there was a bit of a delay as the contraption didn’t work at first; it’s another thing I don’t mind but which didn’t actually help the production. Those nearby who were splashed weren’t so happy, though.

The financial fisticuffs between Gremio and Tranio-as-Lucentio was amusing, though I found myself remembering the wonderful Generation Game conveyor belt scene from our first Taming many years ago. (Just taken a quick break to review the cast at http://calm.shakespeare.org.uk/dserve/dserve.exe?dsqIni=Dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Performance&dsqSearch=PerfCode==’TAM198304’&dsqCmd=Show.tcl – great fun!) The competition between the tutors was also entertaining, and although she wasn’t entirely convinced, Bianca was clearly favouring Cambio over Licio. There were two chairs on stage at this point, and each tutor kept pulling one of them away so the other chap fell down, which was more amusing than it sounds. Cambio in particular got himself into all sorts of contorted positions while he was ‘construing’ with Bianca, while Licio sang each line of his ‘gamut’ after Bianca read it out – very funny.

The wedding itself was pretty lively. We were given the full text, as far as I could tell, so Biondello had his chance to romp through the almost unintelligible speech about Petruchio and his nag – he did this very well, using postures to illustrate the descriptions. Petruchio and Grumio looked like they’d come straight from a particularly bawdy stag do – Petruchio had ‘Petruchio and Kate’ written on his chest in big black letters, while Grumio had ‘Grumio’ on his. They were scantily clad in what might loosely be called trousers, with greenery attached at strategic points and a large salami down Grumio’s trousers; this became his ‘weapon’ later. Kate was wearing a simple white tailored dress, while Bianca was in a pink ensemble. It took some effort for Kate to actually utter the word ’entreat’, but she managed it, and still she ended up being wrapped in Petruchio’s coat (or cloak) and carried off. There was a good laugh when she said ‘Father, be quiet’, given that he was behind her at that point.

They took the interval here, which meant that Sly had to get off stage as well. They’d kept him on throughout this first half, and between the early scenes they’d done a bit of under the covers rummaging. At first it was Bartholomew escaping his lord’s clutches, then Marion Hackett appeared for some unknown reason and stole Sly’s underpants. By the time of the interval, he was the only one of the induction scene characters left, and when he realised everyone else had left the stage, he held his vest over his willy and eventually made his way off. I found this stuff mildly amusing, but as they didn’t do much with it in the second half it was rather wasted for me, especially as it disrupted the rhythm of the play. They moved the bedspread around so much during those bits that some cast or crew had to come on and straighten everything out again before the action could continue.

Sly also came on at the start of the second half, on his own, holding a small saucepan over his nether regions. He went off stage at the back beside the pillows, as I recall, but he was hanging around during the next scene for a while, watching the action among the players. There was hardly any Curtis at all with this production – lost in rehearsal, poor chap – and they prepared for the scene by having lots of actors come on and pose themselves on the stage, asleep. The chairs which had been left there were put on their sides with somebody draped over the one nearest us. There were actors lying on the pillows, on the stage and hanging out of the back area, all fast asleep. Grumio woke them up and Petruchio came in soon after, with Kate crawling in after him. Her dress was a bit mucky, and I think she was shoeless, but otherwise she seemed fine. They skipped through this scene pretty quickly and after a short report from Curtis about the non-event in the bedchamber, Petruchio returned to give us a situation report. He waited quite a long time to see if anyone in the audience could suggest another way to achieve the desired result – no response.

The next scene is where Tranio craftily gets Hortensio to swear off Bianca, and although I couldn’t see all the action behind the doors, I got a clear idea of what was going on. Basically, Lucentio and Bianca were pre-empting the marriage vows and going at it, hammer and tongs. They started by kissing, but were soon into rampant sexual intercourse in all sorts of positions, culminating in pleasurable exhaustion when they finally joined Tranio. The activity was revealed by opening various panels in the doors, showing different parts of the lovers as they got it on. Early on, both Tranio and Hortensio were right by the doors, but fortunately the lovers were oblivious; later on it was just Tranio winding Hortensio up by opening yet another panel.

At the end of this scene, Tranio persuaded the travelling pedant to pose as his father, and then we were back in Petruchio’s house, with Kate trying to get hold of some food from Grumio. When Petruchio and Hortensio came on with the dish of meat, Hortensio ended up straddling Kate, who was face down on the stage, and as there was too much to eat he stuffed some items in his pockets to clear the plate.

The argument over the dress was good fun. The dress and hat themselves were very attractive, and the dressmaker arrived with a live model to show off his work. She was rather upset at having her sleeve ripped off, and Kate took the sleeve back off Petruchio and put it back on the model, only for it to be ripped off again, along with the other one and the cape. I think this was the scene where Kate paused the argument, got one of the chairs, put it in front of Petruchio, and stood on it so she could argue with him face to face – excellent fun.

The scene where Baptista met the fake Vincentio and then Biondello explained to Lucentio the basics of elopement, was pretty standard and then we saw Petruchio, Kate and Grumio returning to Padua for a family reunion. Kate finally decided to stop arguing, couldn’t tell why, and then the real Vincentio turned up. Dressed in a very natty suit, and wearing sunglasses, he was also accompanied by a bodyguard who wasn’t keen on letting these strangers anywhere near his boss, especially when they talked so weirdly. Vincentio wasn’t bothered though, and waved him away. After Kate and Petruchio had their fun, and Petruchio spoke to the new arrival to find out who he was, Vincentio joined in the game by addressing Kate as ‘Fair sir’ and Petruchio with ‘and you my merry mistress’. So at least he has a sense of humour; he’ll need it later after Tranio abuses him.

The party was going full swing when they arrived at Padua, and the melee in front of the house was mildly entertaining. Petruchio and Kate stood over at the far side of the stage, so I couldn’t see what they were up to, but I got the impression that they were chatting to each other instead of watching the action.

For the final scene, the rest of the cast entered through the doors, and Kate and Petruchio were a bit behind them. Kate was clearly embarrassed that they were still wearing their soiled clothes, and the other two wives were clearly sneering at her. She went back to the doors and stood along from Petruchio there, having nicked his hat and put it on her head. There was dancing, and Bianca was enjoying herself with Gremio as they did the tango.

The bickering was entertaining enough, with Kate really having a go at the widow over her ‘mean’ comment. Bianca was very lively, and then the women left the stage. The men were more laddish once they’d gone, and the money for the bet was soon on the floor in the middle of the stage. A chair was placed beside the money, and each husband waited on it, expectantly. Biondello gave the bad news to two of them, then Grumio went off for the final message, with Petruchio hoping for a good result. Even he was surprised by Kate’s arrival, and I always reckon this is where he goes a bit over the top because he’s worried she’s no longer got any spirit to her.

When he challenged her to tell the other two wives about their duty, she had to think about it for a while, and everyone else assumed she wasn’t going to do it. She sat on one of the chairs and lit up a cigarette, but just as the rest had given up on her, she started on the speech. I couldn’t decide on her motivation; it wasn’t clear to me why she’d decided to speak up, although the lines themselves were very clear. Her final offer to put her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot was OK, and he seemed to have realised that she was still the Kate he fell in love with. He took her in his arms, and then they were kissing, and rushing to the back of the stage to get their kit off and snuggle under the bedclothes.

The rest of the play was a bit of a blur. I don’t remember how the rest of the cast left the stage, but soon it was bare and in relative darkness. Sly staggered back on and collapsed on the far side of the stage, and from the noise behind the doors he was outside the inn we’d started from. Two characters came on and went over to him; Steve reckoned they were the Lord and Bartholomew, while I wasn’t sure it was the Lord himself. Either way, he left some money on Sly’s chest, while Bartholomew ran back to leave his scarf with Sly. The performance ended with Marion Hackett standing on top of the ramp and looking at Sly, while he held up some of the money and then collapsed back again on the stage.

I wasn’t taken with this ending; it wasn’t clear to me what was going on, and I only realised it was money on Sly’s chest when he held some of it up at the end. Since Lucy Bailey had described the play as the journey to get the two leads into bed, why carry on after that’s been done? And with the Sly subplot petering out during the second half, why go back to it? Maybe we’ll understand it better next time we see it as our angle will be better, although the way this bed set blocks the view, I’m not so sure.

This was a lively retelling of the story with lots of physical humour, some of which worked for me, some of which didn’t. The relationship between Kate and Petruchio was believable, and the rest of the performance was at least watchable with some nice touches. Steve wondered if Kate was actually challenging Petruchio at the end by offering her hand, testing him to see how he would take it. That’s possible, and we’ll both be watching closely next time to see if it becomes clearer.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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