Though it has been denounced as misogynistic, there’s no doubt that The Taming of the Shrew remains entertaining for audiences, as this production by the Royal Shakespeare Company proves.
Entering the theatre, I was very struck by the set – a giant bed takes up almost the entire stage, leaving only a little room for a headboard which opens up to become the doors and windows of various places. Indeed, the bed is an important piece of furniture for Shrew, as it seems to begin and end in bed: we start in the bed that Christopher Sly has been dumped in thanks to the trickery of a lord, and finish in the martial bed of Petruchio and Kate. Even lines in the first and last scene make reference to beds, “go to thy cold bed, and warm thee” and “Come, Kate, we’ll to bed”.
The windows in the headboard are used to great comic effect in revealing, to the horror of her suitor Hortensio, that Bianca has chosen Lucentio for her husband. As the windows are opened and closed again and again the acts behind them become increasingly lewd (and thus more hilarious), beginning with kissing and moving on to all kinds of humorous groping and thrusting.
I overheard an audience member call Lisa Dillon’s Kate “a bit of caricature” in the interval, and I can’t help but agree; I found myself wondering how she had the energy to keep up all that moaning and groaning and throwing of things (and herself) around the stage. However she certainly proves to be a match for David Caves’s Petruchio and I loved her comical booze-swigging and chain-smoking.
The sexual chemistry between Dillon and Caves is obvious from their first shared moment on stage, which is incredibly important for director Lisa Bailey’s interpretation to work – she sees the ‘taming’ scenes as a kind of foreplay. By the time they jump under the covers of the huge bed and writhe suggestively beneath them, we’re convinced that the sex is going to be incredible.
Elizabeth Cadwallader makes for a delightfully bratty Bianca and her suitors are all spectacularly comical in their pursuit of her, particularly Sam Swainsbury’s Hortensio.
Setting the play in 1940s Italy meant the stage was washed in a lovely Mediterranean glow created with clever lighting, and full of charming costumes. The ladies in particular were very elegant; Bianca was the picture of virginal beauty in full-skirted pastel dresses, whilst sister Kate wore the more rebellious and sexy pencil skirts.
In addition, the live on-stage music led by John Eacott truly enhanced the production and added to the chaos of the first of Kate’s wild outbursts.
All in all, the RSC’s The Taming of the Shrew is sensual, captivating and a jolly good laugh… just don’t mention the word ‘feminism’.