There’s no faulting the energy of Conall Morrison’s cast in this Stratford transfer of Shake- speare’s most troublesome play.
They work incredibly hard to distract us from some of the more unpleasant aspects and, if the production lacks the grace of the very best RSC work, it is at least in part the fault of The Taming of the Shrew itself.
If you like your comedy broad, the frequent heavy-handedness won’t matter but it does become tiring, not to say tiresome, over a lengthy evening, made longer by the inclusion of the Christopher Sly prologue.
Morrison pays heed to the play’s commedia dell’Arte roots, with a production that is fast, physical and a little rough around the edges. There are feeble old men lusting after young girls, buffoonish servants and self-consciously earnest young lovers. At times it resembles pantomime, even Carry On humour and other less vital bastardisations of the 17th Century street theatre.
In a plot which is one great charade and almost everyone is pretending to be someone else, there is a strong emphasis on play-acting. The actors are called upon to keep up a pretence from beginning to end; wearing for them and ultimately for us too.
It has its compensations, though. The modern-day prologue, or “Induction”, set as a seedy binge-drinking Saturday night in any UK town, sees the arrival of a bunch of over-the-top players, tumbling from a huge van, which is quite ingenious.
The two leads Stephen Boxer’s Petruchio and Michelle Gomez’ Katharina are excellent. Their big wooing scene is brutal and alarming, the breaking of a particularly strong and stubborn mule, with some of the plentiful gags highly questionable. Gomez’ fall, when it comes, is dramatic and you’re unlikely to see a more chastened and broken shrew. Her final speech is electrifying, with none of the usual gasps of horror from an audience also beaten into submission.
There is a huge pay-off, as the problematic ending is very neatly dealt with. We’re left in no doubt of the director and cast’s attitude to Petruchio’s brutish despotism and Katarina’s acquiescence. Few productions succeed so well in pulling us back from a situation that is simply unacceptable nowadays.
Clever it may be but it does leave you wondering that, if Shakespeare’s play needs bending to such an extent to render it watchable, is it one still worth performing. The frenetic clowning that here serves as an alternative to the playwright’s bewildering intent may not be enough.