Shakespeare has a few plays I really don’t like. A few I don’t like because they are boring; one (Winter’s Tale) because it’s nonsensical; one because of the violence (Othello); and, well, one because of the misogyny. That’s right, The Taming of the Shrew is a play I actively avoid, because watching a man torture a woman in a comedy just doesn’t tickle my funny bone one little bit. I find it more abusive than Othello, because it makes the audience complicit in Kate’s destruction.
But then there’s Propeller. I think they’re the most outstanding performers of Shakespeare in the country; and, given that it’s an all-male troupe, I’d expect they’d bring something really different to this play. And I’ve been booking for everything they do since their outstanding Richard III; I was just going to have to trust the company to make the best silk purse possible out of this sow’s ear. So I bought my tickets (months in advance!) and waited.
As you would hope, Propellor produced this as a very lively show, with the usual “everybody in the cast sing” moments as well as some rocking out (I doubt the electric guitar was period appropriate but, you know, roll with it); piles of physical interactions and fun staging that still made a virtue of simplicity – much better suited to my tastes than the National’s typical over-heavy set dressings. And the comedy was not limited to the usual “hip thrust to indicate sexual innuendo in the script” nonsense – in the scene where Petruchio shows up to the wedding ill-clad, he is costumed in a fringed leather jacket … and a sumo wrestler’s underpants, aligned so that when he turned his back to the audience and lifts his arms, we were all mooned. (Somewhat more horrifying was the view from the front – my housemate and I were in cringing hysterics because of the nut cleavage. Someone needs to teach this man how to tuck better.)
But did we manage to change the play into one that was not horrifying? Well, no. Punk rock Katherine (with her bleached blond hair and tattered stockings) came off more than ever like someone who’d been mentally abused. Her final scene, in which she admonishes her sister and another new bride for being inappropriately lacking obedience toward their husbands, has been, when I’ve seen this before, kind of a triumph for Petruchio, as Katherine has been restored to a “natural” state for women, obedient and yet still intelligent. In this version, Katherine appeared to be a broken, abused prisoner of war, utterly humiliated and abased, her natural vivacity destroyed. Her changed seemed profoundly wrong.
At the end, when Petruchio is told that it was all a dream (or a play), I can’t help but wonder just what Shakespeare was saying about his own comedy – that it was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration … or not? Despite the overall excellence of this show, I have not been converted to this play, but I think Propeller will probably give you a chance to see it in as good of a form as it will get.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 8th, 2013. It continues at Hampstead Theatre through July 20th. Next year they’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, which I’m looking forward to much more.)