saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
The Taming of the Shrew
The New Wimbledon Studio Theatre
28th May 2015
Photography © Davor Torvarlaza
With Shakespeare so fond of setting plays within plays and having his protagonists suffer from mistaken identities on a regular basis, his writing can admittedly be hard to follow on stage if you haven't studied the text in advance. It turns out you can make The Taming of the Shrew even more complicated and that's by swapping genders and turning male characters into female characters pretending to be male characters and changing their names. Keeping up? Well, don't try. Forget the Bard. The moment you stop trying to relate this adaptation by Arrows & Traps back to the source material and simply relax and enjoy the production for what it is, The Taming of the Shrew stops being a headache and becomes a lot of fun. Director Ross McGregor has really brought out the comedy here - there's even some slapstick, that's how far he goes - and created something which isn't instantly recognisable but which does work.
When Lucentia (Remy Moynes) is visiting the city with her servant Trania (Gemma Salter), she instantly falls for Bianco (Samuel Morgan-Grahame) and takes on the identity of male music tutor Cambio to spend more time with Bianco, who is being courted by Gremia (Jean Apps) amongst others. This leaves Trania to take on the role of Lucentia as, well, someone has to be her. At the same time, Petruchia (Elizabeth Appleby) and her servant Grumia (Lucy Caplin) come a-visiting with Petruchia also falling head over heels, this time for Kajetano (Alexander McMorran) - the shrew of the piece, or in modern money, the douche. Petruchia does some serious reverse psychology on Kay to "tame" him and this becomes the main plotline. However, there's a lot of other threads going on - from the real Lucentia's mum Vicentia (Bridget Mastrocola) showing up and getting in a fight with Bianco's mum Bapista (Cornelia Baumann) to Hortensia (Suzy Gill) suddenly getting hitched to a widower (Gareth Kearns). This is definitely one script packing a lot of action.
McGregor keeps up the pace that such a busy text requires, initially framing the story with drunkard Christopher Sly (Christopher Neels) tricked into believing he's a nobleman and sitting down - okay, staggering into a corner - to watch the performance. It's a rowdy way to kick off proceedings, and is a faithful little nod to Shakespeare before turning the piece on its head. The original has been accused of being misogynistic and well, if you can't forgive someone born in the 16th century for being a little bit anti-women's lib, who can you? By flipping the genders, those undercurrents become even more uncomfortable and reacting in such a way makes it even more awkward because you're acutely aware treating anyone that badly just shouldn't be acceptable and yet if you're brutally honest, Petruchia's taming of Kay feels even more wrong than Petrucio's taming of Katherine. Rewriting a classic needs a damn good reason, and forcing us to examine prejudices maybe we didn't know we had certainly ticks that box. Fair play, McGregor.
As Petruchia descends into seemingly ridiculousness behaviour, Appleby seems to channel Eddy from Ab Fab. She offends the tailor (Norma Butikofer) by pulling her work apart for no reason and a dinner pour deux becomes a farce complete with servants clambering around in deliberately fake moustaches. Caplin brings out a lot of humour too as Grumia, with Pippa Caddick as Biondella also taking on a traditional fool's part; the pair running about the stage at different moments with wide-eyed innocence and getting tangled up in their mistresses' deception. There's a serious message to The Taming of the Shrew, but it's tucked away under many layers of disguises and belly laughs.
You might not expect Shrew to feature any music, but musical director Will Pinchin creates some gorgeous original harmonies and live accompaniment, with McMorran and Salter's voices particular highlights. An emotional solo by McMorran humanises Kay and whilst the unpredictable bursting into song does make the tone uneven, by showing us a softer side to the violent, seemingly unlovable man, we find his taming all the more unsettling. Petruchia doesn't help him become a better person, she breaks his spirit. Had McGregor kept Kay more two-dimensional, we could have attempted to laugh this off; instead we have a much less pleasant reaction.
Slapstick, music, gender-swapping and a lot of plot devices crammed in. The Taming of the Shrew is a complex melting pot of ideas and whilst not many of those ideas seem to belong to the Bard, they're certainly fascinating. On a fringe circuit which is saturated with plenty of Shakespeare plays, Arrows & Traps have managed to stand out and for the right reasons.
The Taming of the Shrew opened on 26th May and runs until 20th June 2015 at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre.
Nearest station: Wimbledon (District)