Theatre reviews: The Taming Of The Shrew | Good Things
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW *** BOTANIC GARDENS, GLASGOW GOOD THINGS *** PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE
WHAT is it about Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew? On one hand, it's a robust plea for old-fashioned patriarchal marriage – the man the head of the woman, and happiness through female submission to a touch of domestic violence – that should be wholly unacceptable to modern audiences. Yet on the other hand, the tale of shrewish Kate of Padua, and her wife-taming sparring-partner Petruchio, seems strangely unwilling to lie down and die. Time and again, actors and directors return to it; and time and again, they seem to make it work for modern audiences, despite the odd whoop and gasp of disapproval.
Gordon Barr's new outdoor version of the play for the 2009 Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow is a messy but exciting case in point, a show that embraces a series of high-risk decisions in the effort to find new dimensions in Shakespeare's text, and somehow manages to generate an interpretation that's both funny and thought-provoking. His first bold decision is to ignore the text's references to Kate's beauty, and to cast her as a butch-looking fattie in Viz comic mode, stomping round the house in cropped hair and trainers while her girlie sister Bianca swoons over copies of Brides magazine. Jennifer Dick, as Kate, is a wonderful actress who speaks Shakespeare like a dream, but there's no denying that Petruchio's willingness to marry her smashes a few contemporary body myths before the play is 15 minutes old.
Then there's the parallel decision to play Grant O'Rourke's Petruchio as a serial drunk, a slightly crazed ageing bachelor who enjoys a joke, isn't much bothered about women, and doesn't mind if his wife looks like the back of a bus so long as he can get hold of her inheritance. At a stroke, these twin decisions remove the element of sexual titillation involved, for some, in seeing a handsome bloke torture and break a pretty, spirited woman; but it also serves to make the strange arc of the play's argument stand out more starkly, as this clearly capable Kate swerves from dogged spinsterhood into wifely subservience.
And what emerges with great clarity – through two strong central performances, with sharp support from Beth Marshall as Kate's glamorous parent Baptista, and Amie Burns Walker as the vacuous Bianca – is the extent to which this play understands the whole business of marriage and human relationship as a kind of performance. In the end, socially and sexually, it suits both Kate and Petruchio for her to perform the role of submission, like a good actress brilliantly trained to convey a truth without totally surrendering to it, while he plays the amusing role of socially eccentric drunkard. And despite some cringe-making coarse-Shakespeare performances further down the cast, Barr's production unleashes whole flights of thought about the sexual and social roles people choose to play, inside marriage and out of it; and how they never – as Kate's final nod to the audience suggests – tell the whole truth about anything.
There are no such subtleties, alas, up at Pitlochry, where one of the opening shows in this year's all-Scottish Homecoming season is an uninspired re-run by Ken Alexander of Liz Lochhead's recent romantic comedy, Good Things. Set in a charity shop in middle-class Glasgow, Good Things is an ingeniously economical show, in which four actors contrive – with the help of some silly wigs and costumes – to play a cast of about 15 characters, including our heroine Susan, a nice volunteer of 50 or so whose husband has just dumped her for a younger model.
In the course of hectic year, we see Susan strengthen her friendship with her camp colleague Frazer, survive embarrassing encounters with both her ex and his new partner, and – rather implausibly – find new love with a handsome widower from across the road. The problem, though, is that this is a play that relies on sharp verbal wit to cut through and balance the cheesy romance of its storyline; and Ken Alexander's soft-edged production never even begins to develop the kind of pace and timing that would really display the more blackly humorous dimension of the play. Carol Ann Crawford is lovely and likeable as Susan. But from the moment she enters, looking implausibly dowdy in a hair-slide, there's a sinking feeling that this production is going to be dogged by a preference for cheap, obvious stereotypes over sharp observation; and although there's plenty to enjoy in a show that unashamedly wears its middle-aged heart on its sleeve, there's a constant, tantalising feeling of points missed, and depths of humour never plumbed.
• The Taming Of The Shrew is at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 11 July. Good Things is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 17 October.
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