'Kiss Me, Kate' director Bartlett Sher on bringing the musical to the Barbican

Sher is directing Broadway talent Stephanie J Block and Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar in this classic musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

Director Bartlett Sher has built a reputation for reviving classic mid-century musicals such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and The King and I, which was staged earlier this year at the Dominion Theatre, starring Call the Midwife’s Helen George.

Now the Tony Award-winning director is turning his hand to Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me, Kate, which follows a group of performers putting on a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, as they attempt to balance both offstage and onstage conflict. The musical stars Broadway performer Stephanie J Block and Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar in the lead roles of Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham who are, in turn, playing Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Charlie Stemp, Georgina Onuorah, Hammed Animashaun, and Nigel Lindsay also star.

London Theatre caught up with Sher about why now is a good time to bring Kiss Me, Kate to the Barbican in London and how it feels to be working with Block and Dunbar.

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How does it feel to be working with such a strong cast?

I haven’t worked with Stephanie [J Block] before. I think she’s such a blessing to the cast because she brings an authentic, brassy, powerful love to what she does. I think it makes the cast lift their game a little bit.

Adrian [Dunbar] is on the other side of that, because he’s new to musicals. He works from his place as an actor, works hard at his vocals, and is very smart about text. He brings diligence to what he’s doing, which is refreshing and fun.

Charlie [Stemp] and Georgina [Onuorah] are a blast. Charlie is probably the most sickeningly charming person I’ve ever been around, and Georgina’s vocals are off the chart.

Why is now a good time to revive Kiss Me, Kate?

You never really know with a musical. You have to ask yourself, “What’s its immediate significance now?” Sometimes, it may just be that you need some joy, and you need to refresh your love of the work that we do. That's where it's come [from] for me. The show is so full of this exuberance. It’s all layered and complicated, and that's really fun and really good for making theatre.

How are you addressing Shakespeare’s old-fashioned gender politics for a modern audience? The original play is about a man who tries to make an outspoken woman more obedient.

We have gone through huge transformations [since Kiss Me, Kate was first staged] and [there are] things that we rightly need to address. When we go back to the classics where they weren't thinking about things in the same way, you ought to legitimately look at something like The Taming of the Shrew and ask, can we do this now?

However, I'm one of those people who thinks we have to investigate those [shows] to learn how we got here. We are looking at the book with my friend [actor and writer] Bob Martin, who is rethinking some sections. The weird thing about [Kiss Me, Kate] is their version of Shakespeare is this musical from late 1940s Hollywood. If you've seen the movie, you’re like, “What possible version of Taming of the Shrew is this?” I've done a lot of Shakespeare, so I'm trying to hold it to a realistic place and then lift it as much as I can.

What is your biggest challenge in directing this musical?

Balancing the offstage story with the onstage story, because when you're going from one to the other, it's this crazy line. A lot of work is going into that balancing act.

How does it feel to be taking the musical to the Barbican?

It's one of the best spaces in London. It has a very big stage space, which is very helpful to me because I have the main operating turntable, but I have a lot of offstage space that's exposed. It’s a wide theatre, so I can do a lot more of the meta stuff in such a space.

I wouldn't have that advantage in one of the smaller London houses, and so that's really helpful to doing it well there. And there's always something weird about going out to the Barbican — in a good way!

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Photo credit: Bartlett Sher. (Photo by International Peace Institute)

Originally published on

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