Sunday 1 March 2009

Brush up your Shakespeare

We were in London yesterday. Not for the Convention on Modern Liberty, though we passed by the place where Henry Porter et al were holding forth on the state of the nation. Nor for the flash mob pillow-fight in Hyde Park. (Incidentally, don't you agree that this craze has passed its sell-by date? The mass freeze in Grand Central Station was stylish, and the T-mobile dance-in at Liverpool Street a joy to behold, but now that everyone's in on the joke, hasn't this pastime lost whatever coolness it once had?)

No, we were in town to see the RSC's production of The Taming of the Shrew, which is currently at the Novello Theatre. As a literature graduate, I'm ashamed to admit that it's not a play I know well. In fact, until yesterday most of my knowledge of the plot was derived from repeat viewings of the 1953 film of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, a long-time favourite in our house. Our expectations of the play had been lowered by some pretty dismal reviews, and by discovering (after booking) that the director was Conall Morrison, who directed the unrelentingly grim Macbeth that we saw at Stratford in 2007.

The verdict? Well, the RSC always deliver a quality production and fantastic performances, and it's difficult to go completely wrong with Shakespeare, even in such a problematic play as this one. But you certainly couldn't accuse Morrison of lightness of touch, or of leaving the audience in any doubt about the points he's trying to make. In this production, he lays on the theme of male misogyny and predatory sexuality with a trowel. As in his Macbeth, Morrison has added an additional scene before the dialogue begins, and once again it serves to reinforce his message in no uncertain terms. Instead of Shakespeare's framing scene in an inn, we witness a lewd stag-night/boys' night out, complete with pole dancers and a blow-up doll. 

The second half of the play is particularly bleak in its depiction of male sexual cruelty, and Morrison rarely misses an opportunity to disgust his audience. The brilliant comedy, played with great gusto by a fantastic cast, goes some way to relieving the grimness of the director's vision. I wasn't sure, though, whether the final scene, in which Petruchio is left (almost) naked and vulnerable on stage, did much to undercut the feminine submissiveness of Kate's final speech. From such an impressive line-up of actors, it seems invidious to single out particular performances, but Michelle Gomez as Kate was spirited and intense and appeared emotionally drained at the end, while among the minor characters Keir Charles was a wonderfully comic Tranio.

The programme for the show was good value too, with a piece on the language of gender politics by one of my academic heroes, Deborah Cameron, an informative article by Robert Henke about the influence of commedia dell'arte on Shakespeare, and an extract from Jack Holland's history of misogyny which, refreshingly didn't hesitate to include 'veiling, seclusion and clitoridectomy' as symptoms of contemporary misogyny.

Anyway, after all that gloom and intensity, here's some light relief from Kiss Me Kate:

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