The Welsh National Opera is marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with its Shakespeare400 tour, which includes Verdi's MacBeth, Tchaikowsky's Merchant of Venice and this, Cole Porter's take on The Taming of the Shrew. The latter two plays have been regarded as "difficult" in recent years, due to their anti-semitic and sexist themes, respectively, and Kiss Me, Kate has similarly been less widely performed than many other contemporary Broadway musicals. It was delightful to have the chance to rediscover it myself, and also to see how my teenage children responded to this piece of theatre from yesteryear.
It is a sumptuous production, brought to life with colour and costume and verve and vigour. The show-within-a-show story of the on-off relationship between the leading man and lady as they tour their production of the Shrew was interestingly staged. The real-life drama was largely acted out against either a drab or a black back-drop, where the sense of rush and excitement was conveyed by the non-stop flurry of activity in the fabulously energetic choreography, and the constantly moving furniture, as mule-on-wheels, costume boxes and clothing rails were swept across the stage. By contrast, the scenes in the play-within-the-play were acted out against beautiful colourful Italianate tapestry-style backdrops. However, occasionally the conventions were broken and my companions were sometimes confused by whether a scene was supposed to be part of the show or part of the off-stage drama. That said, they enjoyed every minute of it.
It was a delightfully humorous production, with many highly entertaining comic flourishes. Cole Porter's lyrics sparkle with continually surprising wit (who would expect a rhyme like "puberty" and "Schubert-y"?) and this production set out to make the most of them (to the extent of actually changing the scenery at least three times within a single song, "Always True to You in my Fashion"). I particularly loved the staging of "Where is the Life that Late I Led?" as one by one the girls magically popped up from under the tablecloth.
There were several stand-out performances. Quirijn de Lang was spellbinding as the charismatic Fred Graham, oozing Jeremy Irons-style charm in his facial expressions, and cutting a dash in his piratical, shiny, black leather garb and single earring. Jeni Bern played Lilli Vanessi superbly (although I would have appreciated a little more snarl in her rendition of "I Hate Men"). Alan Burkitt was excellent as Bill, whose drunken gambling exploits place the show in jeopardy; his tap-dancing routine was amazing, as he sprang up half a flight of stairs in single bound, slid down the banister and burst into an unexpectedly modern beat-boxing rhythm of impossibly rapid foot movements. For me, John Savournin stole the show as a comic talent as "Second Gunman", a tall Cleese-like figure, the gangster delighted by his unlooked-for thespian opportunity, practising his balletic postures.
The WNO is keen to encourage the next generation to develop a love of opera and music, and looking around the audience it was sadly clear that this is essential to opera's future. Even at a piece of popular musical theatre like this, there were very few heads in the audience which hadn't begun to grey. The WNO offers at least 60 tickets at just £5 for every performance. £5 tickets are available to under-16s accompanied by a full paying adult, and to those aged 16-30 (in restricted parts of the auditorium). Go out and get them!