The Taming Of The Shrew

Creation Theatre.
Oxford Castle, Mon 16 July - Sat 25 August, 2007

July 25, 2007
Creation have hit on yet another winner with this choice of outdoor summer production and location. Sitting at the foot of the Castle Mound in the striking Castle Development - just like a tiny walled Italian town on a sunny (yes! really) July evening - the audience is transported to Padua and a far-off, long-distant world of boisterous competing suitors, huge dowries, unwilling wives and brutish husbands.

But is it that far-off and long-ago? A troublesome one, is the Shrew: though a comedy, its central theme focuses on the more unpleasant and controversial aspects of male/female relationships - not exactly standard comic fare - and ends with a conclusion that's about as likely to confuse today's audience as it would have confused many Elizabethan theatre-goers. Presenting the tale as a play-within-a-play performed to a deluded drunkard does (as the programme helpfully points out) raise the question of how seriously old Will wanted us to take its message - whilst other ambiguities, surprises and loose ends may be there to deliberately cloud any message beyond firm interpretation. What it does do without a doubt is make us all remember that male/female realtionships are rarely straightforward. Whilst women may no longer be the legal property of their menfolk, and domestic violence is now disapproved of rather than recommended, we will still argue about issues such as who stays home with the kids and who goes out to bring home the bacon - and we will still need women's refuges. As the director says (again, helpfully, in the programme), if the audience leaves thinking about issues such as these, then '...it has been a lively evening of theatre', and the players have indeed done well.

Director Heather Davies carries off her 1950s visualisation of the setting with panache, and the nine-strong cast look great in their rock-n-roll, Bobby-Soxer and Al Capone outfits, performing comicly fitting 50s popsongs live on guitar, ukelele, sax and voice (Jo Theaker's Lulu-esque crooning deserving special mention). Reminding the audience of 'Grease' and the slightly stuffy sex-and-gender mores of 50s America simultaneously seems a perfect match for the histrionic, adolescent behaviour of the central characters as they fuss and faux-fight around very weighty topics. The sexual and intellectual tension between the well-cast Petruchio and Katherina is all-too plausibly electric (get a load of that snog at the end!), there is some brilliant chopping and changing of accents by other identity-shifting cast members, and the device of absorbing the deluded drunkard into the play-within-a-play until he became a central character is very effective. Occasionally you can hear Hamlet leaking over the wall from the other courtyard, and helicopters monitoring rising flood waters can be a little distracting - and take a blanket - but bar these fairly standard outdoor theatre hazards, prepare yourself for a surprisingly funny, interesting evening.

July 20, 2007
Creation Theatre unleashes one of the most potent themes in Shakespeare’s writing, the power of the imagination, in Heather Davies’ 1950s interpretation of this comic battle of the sexes. A brief piece of promenade theatre opens the show, in which a Lord fools a drunken tinker (Christopher Sly) into believing that he too is a Lord, and the story of The Taming of the Shrew is then told for his entertainment.

Anna Morrissey’s direction makes a good use of the three-dimensional castle yard space as the cast continually promenade the mediaeval area beneath the mound. Dominating the centre of the courtyard is a rectangular gold cage and a couch for the ‘Lord’ Christopher Sly to recline on and participate in what may be reality or a figment of his imagination. Sly’s observations mollify the cruel taming of Kate. The outrageously amusing Petruchio (Ben Joiner) starves his sparkling, quick-witted new bride (Emma Pallant) of food, and destroys her fine clothes with panache and humour. Then he follows suit, wearing ridiculous pants to their sublime wedding ceremony where Kate is humiliated as he breaks all traditions.

Joiner plays Petruchio with such conviction that these brutal acts could be interpreted as a form of wooing in order to inspire the volatile Kate into believing that if the pair work as a team they will be all the stronger. Kate eventually comes to welcome the muscle bound arm of her Brylcreemed beau, who is quick to protect her from an ugly brawl between sharp-suited suitors who argue over who will win Kate’s sister Bianca and her substantial dowry. Jonathan Waller’s fight choreography is a timely reminder that Petruchio’s original intent is to ‘wive it wealthily’.

In suppressing Kate to the point where she calls the sun the moon and vice versa at Petruchio’s whim, a turning point is reached and both husband and wife appear to embrace new feelings. Just then, a rainbow appeared over the Debtors’Tower (such is the spontaneous joy of outdoor theatre), to reward the moment! Live rock n roll standards accompany the action, reflecting the shoots of young love with a music style that marks the birth of youth culture. Isla Shaw’s diverse period costumes give fizz to the romance with elegant simple satin gowns for Kate and an American styled Air force jacket, white T-shirt and 501’s for Petruchio. Jive steps are danced by the suitors who come to court Kate’s sister Bianca, played by Jo Theaker who offers superbly pitched vocals to iconic songs like ‘Sweet Nothings’. Kisses, such as the smacker Kate offers Petruchio on his demand ‘Kiss me Kate’, lead us to intimacy and to a closer understanding of the themes of the play.

At Bianca’s wedding Petruchio wins a second dowry when Kate is the only wife at the banquet to answer her husband’s call. It seems the Shrew has been tamed and Kate informs all ladies present, ‘Thy husband is thy Lord’. Although it is hard to decide if Kate is totally smitten or merely playing Petruchio’s game, it is with sincerity that Kate asks to put her hand under her husband’s foot so it ‘may it do him ease’. He humbly refuses, bringing her up to standing and leaning into a delightful kiss exclaims, ‘Come, Kate, we’ll to bed’. In a click of a finger a silent ending rounds up the be-bop action and the actors come out of role, bidding their leave of Christopher Sly who is played with unfailing integrity by Richard Burnip. Hop along baby!
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