The Taming of the Shrew

Feb 6 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆     Lively

Pleasance Theatre: Mon 5 – Fri 9 Feb 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Pleasance is a witty and intelligent take on an endlessly troubling play.

This particular Shakespeare comedy has been staged with increasing frequency in the last decade, despite its difficulties for modern audiences.

Baptista Minola disappoints his younger child’s host of admirers by saying she cannot marry until her argumentative older sibling is wed. The ‘taming’ of the older child Katherina by Petruchio, through gaslighting, near-starvation and all-round misogyny, is distinctly unpalatable. Recent productions have taken various routes – undercutting it as a farce, swapping genders, or playing up the horror.

Maria Wollgast and Ted Ackery in EUSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. Pic: Emily Shade.

Director Minna Gillett has attempted to put the play in a different context by switching the genders of those two main roles – Petruchio becoming Petruchia, and Kate is now Christian. There are a couple of other switches, but this is not a complete re-gendering as in Jo Clifford’s recent version. Apart from some cuts, the text stays close to what was written; we even get the rarely-seen introduction which casts the rest of the play as an entertainment for the drunken Christopher Sly, as part of a trick to make him think he is a lord.

The setting is still recognisably Italy, but this is a 1980s version, complete with disco-pop, materialistic yuppies and garish artificial fabrics.

The prominent gender swap does show some of the story in a new light, but Petruchia’s behaviour is still unforgivable whatever the power dynamic. Some further modernisations cannot disguise the fact that relationships are still portrayed in a transactional and patriarchal manner, with financial considerations uppermost and the women (besides Petruchia) having little agency.

theatrical knowhow

Gillett’s staging is, however, thought through with heaps of theatrical knowhow and considerable rigour. It also manages to play up the comedic elements of the play with great success. Maria Wollgast’s Petruchia is a formidable presence, displaying boundless energy and particularly strong at the difficult business of acting drunk.

A scene from EUSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. Pic: Emily Shade.

Petruchia’s relationship with servant Grumia (Anna Yarwood) has all the hallmarks of a classic comic double act. It is a shame we do not get more of it; Yarwood’s comic timing is absolutely first-rate.

Wollgast’s sparring with Ted Ackery’s Christian does have plenty of spark, with Ackery’s pouting, sulky characterisation being very effective.

On occasion, their exchanges are not that easy to make out; throughout the production, there are odd moments where the words could be clearer. This is partly due to the breakneck speed of some of it. The tiresome and outdated business of the rich characters speaking in exaggeratedly plummy RP, with the others having a variety of region-specific accents, also does not help.

Most of the dialogue, however, is commendably clear and rhythmic. The large cast are used very well; the comedy (both verbal and physical) is undoubtedly the strongest suit but the storytelling is lucid too.

genuine vitality

Too often with a large cast the stage becomes overfilled, with extraneous business drawing eyes from the main action, but that rarely happens here. However the temptation to have Petruchia’s behaviour at the wedding played out on stage while the agreeably hangdog Gremio of Gabriel Rogers describes it, should probably have been avoided. The problem of completely unconvincing and distracting smoking of fake cigarettes also surfaces yet again.

Fraser Murray and Eric Parker in EUSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. Pic: Emily Shade.

The performers, however, have genuine vitality, often being expressed in a puppyish earnestness that is very endearing. Eric Parker’s lovestruck Lucentio – so 80s in his look he could be the lead in a Rudi Völler biopic – is suitably emphatic, while Fraser Murray gives his servant Tranio a real wide-boy glee.

Alexander Levin has genuine comedy class as both Christopher Sly and Minola, while Greta Abbey’s Bianca has more impact than the character usually does.

beautifully achieved set

In a strong supporting cast, Juliet Gentle’s is a well-timed Biondella, Eliana Kiakides a downbeat Hortensia, with Aaron de Verés a comically nonplussed merchant and Hugo Donnelly a convincingly angry Vincentio. Mia Clayton, Gorrav Bains, Georgia Thomas and Ali Lakhany complete a company where everyone knows exactly what they are doing.

A scene from EUSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. Pic: Emily Shade.

This well-drilled feeling extends offstage; a great deal of furniture-shifting is done speedily and without fuss by an army of stagehands, helping to bring the best out of Émilie Noël’s beautifully achieved set. Izzy Hodgson’s costumes, meanwhile, carry on the chosen aesthetic superbly.

If there is a problem here, it is not that this production is too radical a reimagining, it is that it is not radical enough. There must be a case for saying that the only acceptable adaptation of Shrew is a complete rewrite. Even cut and given to a male character, the closing speech is always going to leave a nasty taste.

It is not always easy to justify yet another staging of the play; however, this production has enough animation and laughter to do so.

Running time 2 hours 35 minutes including one interval
Pleasance Theatre, 60 Pleasance, EH8 8TJ
Monday 5 – Friday 9 February 2024
Daily at 7.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

EUSC Instagram: @eushakespearecompany
Facebook: @eushakespeare.

The cast of EUSC’s The Taming of the Shrew. Pic: Emily Shade.

ENDS

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