“Come, Kate, well to bed…” Act 5, Sc II
Shakespeare’s shrew is a beautiful mess of a character. The way in which she is treated, suppressed, deprived and altogether tamed is a director’s dream, with numerous interpretations at hand to the constantly revive the progressively irrelevant classic in today’s steadily feminist society. One can show a subdued Kate, finally beaten into submission; an ironic Katherine crossing her fingers as she bids her husband’s will or, as in Lucy Bailey’s new production for the RSC, a vigorously sexual Katherina, dripping in sarcasm and saliva.
The play is consistently popular; telling the story of feistily wilful Katherina (Lisa Dillon) who is unwillingly forced to marry the arrogant but powerful Petruchio (David Caves). He begins to tame her by starving her, not providing her with clothes and insisting his word is final – even when he swears the moon shines in the sky when it is clearly ‘the blessed sun!’. Often in adaptions it is conveniently forgotten that The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play but Bailey pays close attention to the story of Christopher Sly (Nick Holder), the drunkard thrown out of a pub and awakening in elaborate prank set in the world of Padua. Sly remained onstage almost throughout the entire play, watching the action and occasionally participating in a luridly comical fashion. It all feeds into the image of a ridiculous sexual fantasy, fuelled by Sly and emphasised by the set – a gigantic sloping bed that consumes the whole stage in a sea of sheets and pillows, backed by two towering heavy oak doors.
Raising a few feminist eyebrows, Bailey stages the battle of the sexes in a 1940s chauvinistic Italy where the appropriate Catholic mindset still treats unmarried women as outcasts. This production pictures Petruchio and Katherina as finding a common interest in being the misfits of their societies. Even as Katherina openly urinated on stage, Petruchio watched on with a hungry awe, adding in his Northern Irish drawl “Wow…” Dillon and Caves have a great chemistry on stage, a raw sexual desire heavily emphasised under Shakespeare’s famous battle of wits. Due to their erotic physicality, the script is transformed into a filthy muck of innuendos that raunchily delights the audience while still congratulating themselves on going to see something so obviously cultured. The relationship that develops does not show any sign of this being a love story. Although after Katherina’s famous final speech, in a turn of interpretation, it is Petruchio who knelt quietly at her feet, the moment does seem poignantly romantic. But soon after, the pair hurriedly snapped out of the moment and hastily undressed each other as if the whole taming process has been a much delayed foreplay. So the play leaves us to question does equality of the sexes only come through sex itself?
Despite all this attention being paid to Sly and our dynamic duo, the sub-plot of the play still shines through with cheekily comic detail. Katherina’s younger more eligible, ever perfect sister Bianca (Elizabeth Cadwallader) waves goodbye to the usual simpering mess cast and adds a sassy spite to the fair maiden. She toys with her suitors with ease, practically eating poor lovestruck Lucentio (Gavin Fowler) alive.
The music of the piece was refreshingly creative and sparked with imaginative comedy. John Eacott’s brass band (Loose Tubes) followed the action of the play with gorgeously burlesque horns and playful oom-pah-pah motifs that fit perfectly in the dream of Sly’s the audience has stumbled upon. They stay onstage along with the cast as general members of the public, which alongside the presence of Sly makes the play seem a little claustrophobic and detracts away from any significant moment Petruchio and Katherina could hope to share. It was a feast for the eyes to watch so much energy and spontaneity on stage but crucial moments were staged at bizarre places. As the confusion of identities between Tranio, Lucentino and Vicentio took place raucously centre stage, upstage right Petruchio and Katherina shared an intimately modest moment of whispers and gazes that could easily be missed if you were too busy laughing at Christopher Sly scratching his privates absentmindedly downstage left.
Overall, the RSC have triumphed another modernisation of the comedy, letting their hair down on the all-together seriousness that so often mars this play. Any emotional attachment to the characters is seemingly impossible in the chaos of the Italian fantasy but we are happily swept up in the delirious dream. But perhaps the lack of reality is Bailey’s little incline of the head to our headstrong feminists; do we all just need to wake up from sexism?