SHAKESPEARE’S early play The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most difficult for modern audiences, and never more so than in these post-Weinstein, equal pay, equal opportunity days.
Bill Alexander’s sparkling production for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at Circomedia (the 18th century former St Paul’s Church) doesn’t duck away from the story.
Daughters are sold by parents and bought by husbands to increase fortunes, consolidate blood-lines and climb the social ladders. As possessions, they are subservient first to parent and then to husband.
We have moved on, but its a salutary lesson to confront how we got here.
Casting a woman as Baptista Minola subverts the usual balance of the story. Once a woman becomes a wife, and her husband dies, she gains power … Shakespeare continued the theme with the Montague and Capulet wives.
Our heroine is Katherina, Kate the Cursed. Unwilling to be anyone’s gull, she was very hard to marry off, but her mother, following tradition, insisted that she marry before her more obviously desirable sister could contemplate suitors.
The question for a 21st century audience is always “who won?” Did the peculiar Petruchio starve, bully and bludgeon Kate into submission, or did she use her feminine wiles to trick him into thinking he won – probably because of an animal attraction between them? That’s what a director has to decide, and then disguise his decision – and brilliantly Mr Alexander pulls it off.
He relies both on the charismatic swashbuckling of his cast and setting the action in a play-within-a-play structure, combined with the splendour of the church and colourful stained glass hangings.
I am not certain that the louche aristocrats sofa-slouching on the sidelines actually add to the impact, drawn in as supporting actors in the play, but that’s probably because the central actors are SO compelling.
George Readshaw is a sensational Petruchio, combining braggadocio and vulnerability with a quirky charm that doesn’t mind showing its feminine side. He’s electrically matched by Kate Reid’s Katerina.
Hanna Livingstone is a flirtatiously powerful Baptista, and Beau Holland a comical Bianca. Jyuddah Jaymes exemplifies the importance of Shakespearean verse speaking, with Felix Garcia Guyer
as the galumphing Grumio, Alex Wilson the effete Gremio, Marco Young as an avid Hortensio and the hilarious Charlotte Wyatt as the put-upon Biondella.
This spectacular production is another example of the excellence of this group. We’ll all look forward to seeing them on their progress into the world of work (ghastly phrase!)