Following in the footsteps of other directors, Rachel Kavanaugh has decided to do some judicial, literary pruning to the opening section of her new version of 'The Taming of the Shrew'. Apt though that act may be for this park-bound venue, purists might baulk at the Bard's work being cut, even though it's a pretty common occurrence in many Shakespearian productions. The strangely entitled 'Induction' to this play (which Kavanaugh has cut) is an odd sort of set-up involving one Christopher Sly, who awakens from a drunken stupor, and is conned into believing that he is a wealthy Lord, and must watch a play for the good of his health - leading to a 'play-within-a-play' scenario that Shakespeare used on several occasions. But the characters in the Induction don't feature after Act 1, so their initial appearance simply sets-up the rest of the play – suggesting that the remainder shouldn't be taken too seriously.
For modern audiences, 'The Shrew' has caused controversy because the ending seems to imply male domination of women, which feminists of the 1970s in particular took exception to with considerable vocal vigour. So, directors have since approached the play with some caution, if not a little trepidation. In discarding the Induction, Rachel Kavanaugh's approach has been to concentate on the relationship between the two main characters - Sirine Saba's tomboy like Katherina, and John Hodgkinson's Basil Fawlty-like Petruchio, and to imply that they really fall for each other - making it a love story rather than a battle of the sexes, or a discourse on gender politics. Kavanaugh's strategy has largely paid off, because Saba's moody and vitriolic Katherina transforms during the course of the play into an apparently happy and radiant wife, though at the start of the play, it certainly seems an uphill battle to achieve such an outcome.
Wealthy citizen of Padua, Baptista Minola, is anxious to get his two daughters married but has a big headache. Daughter Bianca is a highly desirable beauty who has men salivating at the very sight of her and falling over themselves to tie the knot. But older daughter Katherina or ‘Katherine the Curst’ as she's more generally known, is an 'irksome brawling scold' or 'shrew' with a venomous tongue, only too eager and willing to reduce men to crumbling, terrified wrecks. She's also not averse to a spot of violence such as tying-up her sister to find out which suitor she's keen on, or biting and kicking nearby males. Even with a humongous dowry on offer, Baptista can't find anyone to take on the vixen-like Katherina, so he insists that he will only consent to Bianca's marriage if someone can find a 'hand' for Katherina. A tall order it seems, but of course there's one who, encouraged by monetary reward, is able to rise to the occasion. That's Petruchio, who's happened to wander into town at just the right moment. He's a man in a hurry, so much so that we no sooner blink an eye than he's calling Baptista 'Dad' and has the dowry all but in his bank account, and the marriage duly arranged.
Lucentio also arrives in Padua to do a spot of studying, but it's not long before he's distracted by Bianca's captivating, docile beauty, and gleefully joins the list of suitors. With Petruchio committed to marrying the 'shrew', Lucentio and fellow suitor Hortensio disguise themselves as tutors to woo Bianca in a complex sub-plot, which alternates with the marriage and subsequent married life of Petruchio and Katherina.
The main focus of the play, however, is on Petruchio's unusual and energetic game plan for subduing his spouse 'with kindness', though it doesn't appear like that to Kate, who has to endure a mockery of a wedding thanks to a groom dressed in ludicrously inappropriate attire, as well as subsequent starvation, being dragged through mud and generally ridiculed before being eventually 'tamed'.
Designer Kit Surrey has produced a sufficiently small-town and claustrophobic Padua to suggest a place where people live in such close proximity that everyone knows everyone else's business, whilst also making it rustically cosy. And the verbal fireworks in the dialogue are matched by real ones at the seemingly redemptive conclusion - though, the finale suggests life will not be a bed of roses for all the newly-weds.
Modern dress from around the 1940s, seems perfectly apt for this comic, romantic romp. Indeed, when Kate stands outside her home in pyjamas, her femininity seems to have vanished completely, making her more masculine, and thus even more of a challenge in the romance department. What also seems strikingly modern is the diction and general delivery. With some 80% of the play in verse, it can sometimes be difficult to follow, but here there's a natural fluidity and modern clarity that substantially enhances the appreciation of the dialogue and the enjoyment of the play as a whole.
For some, there will still be issues about the subject matter of this play. But Kavanaugh has managed to soften the more controversial, potentially sexist elements, without eliminating or dodging them completely, or stifling the humour. In the end though, one can still find something in Shakespeare's plot or dialogue to offend, most notably where Petruchio 'commands' Kate to come to him as part of a wager. However, tricky moments aside, Regent's Park provides a suitably magical and charming setting for this laudable and astutely directed, love-story rendition of 'The Shrew', although with evenings still chilly after nightfall, you might want to take an extra woolly for the second half!
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Can't help but admire the beauty of Kit Surrey's set." IAN SHUTTLEWORTH for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Intelligent and enjoyable." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "It is misconceived in its attempt to turn the play into a 1940s romantic screwball comedy." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Fun, warm, nimble-witted production." JEREMY KINGSTON for THE TIMES says, "Neat character touches continue in the smaller roles but Katherina’s long argument for wifely submission is unrelated to what the play has shown us."