First performed in London in the early 1590s, this play by Shakespeare was a farcical, probably hilarious comedy for the Elizabethans. But modern audiences do not always see it in the same way, because the big idea of the play is how to 'tame' a woman with a fiery personality and make her subservient to her husband.
The story, however, does not start with a marriage or even wooing, but a strange 'Induction' which involves a drunken tinker called Christopher Sly who is conned into believing that he is a lord and then has to watch a play. This 'play-within-a-play' then becomes the rest of 'The Taming of the Shrew' and we never meet Sly again, though the actor who plays Sly – Simon Paisley Day – becomes Petruchio, the man who will 'tame the shrew' in the rest of the story. In some productions the induction is left out, but in this version directed by Toby Frow it remains in tact, though Sly is described as a drunken member of the Globe audience who, discovered by stewards, finds himself on stage, dressed as a Lord and in the middle of a play. Or, at least that was what I made of it, though it was a little difficult to follow.
The shrew' in the title is Katherina, the daughter of Baptista Minola, a wealthy inhabitant of Padua where the play is set. Katherina has a beautiful sister, Bianca, who has a number of eager suitors. But Baptista has a problem. Katherina's vixen-like personality deters suitors, and Baptista sees he is not going to be able to marry her off. So, he makes it known that he will only allow Bianca to be married if a husband can be found for Katherina. Bianca's suitors join forces to see if they can enlist someone to take on the challenge of wooing Katherina. And up pops Petruchio who just happens to be looking for a wife and, lured by the rich dowry on offer, is more than the man for the job.
Samantha Spiro's Katherina is more like a raging female tiger than shrew, with invisible claws that stretch out demonically at those who come within range. Though she head butts her sister in a fight, I was not wholly convinced that she was as 'stark mad' as she is described, but she is certainly not one to be trifled with. Her sister Bianca (Sarah MacRae) proves to be no angel either, even if she 'plays the innocent' when her father enters while she is fighting with Kate. Simon Paisley Day's Petruchio is a larger-than-life character with a frame to match and easily convinces as a man with a plan (i.e. 'to kill a wife with kindness') and is totally undaunted by Katherina's fearful reputation. His waggishly droll side-kick Grumio (Pearce Quigley) provides much of the humour and one of the running visual gags of the play, kicking a metal bucket whenever Petruchio mentions his dead father.
Since the bulk of the play, is the 'play' and not reality, if you see what I mean, one could describe Petruchio's scheme to 'tame the shrew' as a fantasy, or even wishful thinking. But I am not sure that would convince ardent, modern-day feminists. And to some extent it doesn't convince me either, because in spite of the comedy and the fun to be had, one cannot completely eradicate from one's mind the plight of women in our 'real life' globe who are subjected to unacceptable practices such as forced marriages, often at a tender age. Nevertheless, that didn't seem to spoil the enjoyment of the Globe's audience – a truly packed house with not even room for a shrew of the animal variety. And that is not surprising because Toby Frow's well-directed and engaging production employs numerous visual gags to focus on and milk the humour, making it more of a ludicrous romp and difficult not to enjoy.
"Ebullient interpretation...Although it’s broad and bawdy, there are a few essential touches of poignancy, and the laughs come thick and fast."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"In short, this is a broad, knockabout Shrew that doesn't go in much for psychological depth and presents Katherina's final speech of submission without irony. Both actors go at it hammer and tongs, but what I missed was any hint that they are both troubled people whose very first encounter ignites a strong sexual spark."
Michael Billington for THe Guardian
"Bravely and wisely, director Toby Frow balances the play’s startling cruelty with exuberant comic energy, rather than knowing irony...This intelligent and energetic production finds the tenderness in the text, and sends its audience home amused, exhilarated, but also disturbed — which is as it should be. "
Jane Shilling for The Daily Telegraph