Circomedia, Bristol – until 24 February 2018
Director Bill Alexander seems to be on a mission to tackle Shakespeare’s problem plays with graduating students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Previously we have had a brutal take on The Merchant Of Venice and a Two Gentleman Of Verona by the way of Fresh Meat.
This year, it’s what most commentator’s state is the Bard’s most misogynistic play. Lay your money down on a Troilus and Cressida next year. Along as some of the more unpalatable material in Bill’s work, his early material also provides a host of other challenges, poetry that more often hums rather than sings, stock characters that annoy rather than enlight and plots that seem to climax at the point he gets bored with writing them. Hamlet or Lear may present their own challenges but the majesty of the text can help these productions along even in the iffiest of productions.
The earlier work needs a fine production to make up for deficiencies in the text. It’s far too easy otherwise for an audience to wish they are watching Cole Porter’s majestic musical spin-off Kiss Me Kate which used the Shrew as a launchpad.
Alexander’s production has many fine things going for it. It explores, better than any I’ve seen, the thinking behind the prologue that sometimes awkwardly fits into the play, with drunkard Christopher Sly and his tricking by Lords who discover him on the street into watching a play within a play. Here it is staged as though Pirandello had made an edit of the text, as watcher and performer begin to gradually intersect and the hypocrisies within the Count’s court, here defined in a sleek living room with leather sofas and drinks aplenty, are cast alight within the text.
This work still climaxes with Katherina’s controversial speech about the need to be a good and willing wife but here it plays more as a call to arms for the stylish ladies who languishly slip onto the furniture and sip their cocktails sultrily while watching the play, about the need for respect and value within a relationship, not just being a sleek plaything for the moneyed aristocracy to be enjoyed.
It makes a case for this play being an ensemble piece, characters that are never mentioned when talking about the canon, are here given highly defined, highly enlightening work. Baptista is given a gender switch and turns into a fawning sexpot in Hannah Livingstone’s endearingly high energy performance while Felix Garcia Guyer is a highly physical presence as Grumio, physically imposing his rugby player frame into any situation that threatens to spin out of control. Charlotte Wyatt makes something of her stock country servant while Micky Dartford has fun with his, a Cockney wide boy pretending to be Lord. Meanwhile Marco Young turns his Lord into a Servant producing an entertaining turn as an Italian music tutor when he slips in to try to woo his intended Bianca.
With all the fun and invention the ensemble bring to their work, the central relationship feels a little bit of an afterthought here. Both give fine individual performances but the chemistry is lacking, the idea of two bulls clashing heads and being mutually turned on by the antagonism doesn’t fully translate. George Readshaw is a swaggering, slightly manic Petruchio and with his flowing locks has the Shakespearean lover look down pat. Kate Reid brings an intelligent reading to Katherina, a women intellectually on a different plane to what is around her and so consequently always swimming against the tide. What she lacks though is fire and ice. She always is, regardless of the behaviour Shakespeare thrusts at her, a little too well behaved.
The grandeur of St Paul’s Church Circomedia lent itself well to natural spectacle if exposing some flaws in a couple of the students techniques. Volume and clarity were issues that kept occurring in a space that doesn’t easily allow voices to bounce off the architecture. This may improve as the run continues.
Still, all in all, it’s a very solid take on a work that in an era of #MeToo has become ever more complex. Working with an accomplished director as Alexander is obviously paying off in other ways as well. A number of graduating students have moved onto to the RSC in recent years. A Shakespearean education doesn’t come much more thorough than this. For student or audience member alike.
The Taming Of The Shrew plays at Circomedia until the 24 February