On the sultry evening of Friday 25th July, the Everyman theatre company held their opening night of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The weather seemed to complement the heated debates on stage as the age-old issues surrounding clashes between parents and children, the struggles for independence, and, of course, the nature of love were presented. The outdoor set was minimal with a wooden frame as the front of “Tony’s” and a table with two chairs in front of it. Like the original play, this version sought to place an introductory framework before the main show. In this instance, we were launched into a very Welsh scene of a raucous stag-do invading the stage. This made a definite connection with the audience as it created a very local link, with jokes being made to the veneer of “Tony’s” as the chip shop in Caroline Street. The hen party also made their way to the stage and immediately established the tension between the sexes as we learnt that their friend Kate had been “dumped” by one of the stags. Indeed, one player came from being seated in the audience to defend her as his sister and implied that he was only participating in the acting to cheer her up. The start to the performance reinforced the concept that some issues never alter, such as the complexities of courtship from being spurned to marriage itself. The characters then melted into the background and re-emerged as members of the cast.
The main setting for this production was 1950s Italy and this proved to be a great success with costumes reflecting status and personality equally well. It also allowed for a snazzy Rat Pack soundtrack to be played prior to the performance and during the interval which subtly enhanced the atmosphere. From the outset, Kate (Sarah Bawler) commanded the stage through silent facial movements, physical action and vocal talent. Her performance continued to be incredibly strong throughout, with her great interpretation of the language and her often perfect emphasis conveying the meaning. This was particularly evident when Petruchio first starts to woo her and she tries to defy him; later when she is being denied food in a bid to tame her and her desperation exudes from her without even speaking and finally in the concluding section of the play when she enters at last eating a sandwich and thus manages to evoke humour through even a small gesture. Costuming for Kate was also well planned throughout, from a drab dress at the start, to a purple outfit on her wedding day which aptly reflected her passion and choler at the event; she wore more muted colours spattered with mud when she was being “tamed”, while, by the end of the play, she sported a navy dress with white polka dots as the respectable and compliant wife. Petruchio (James Pritchard) provided the perfect foil to her and matched her in stage presence and wit. Dressed in a sharp suit, he managed to come across as suave and business-like which reflected Petruchio’s character well. The height difference between the central couple also allowed for entertainment value as Kate was significantly shorter than Petruchio, so moments of interaction almost contained an element of slapstick.
Tranio (Richard Atkinson) provided initial comedy value by sounding like a Welsh Baldrick from Blackadder with his attempts at cunning plans with his master Lucentio (Matt Lody); then a simple costume swap of a suit jacket and a woollen vest top allowed for a very definite change in demeanour and role. This then made Lucentio appear as a preppy school-boy which, with the later addition of a bowtie, provided the perfect guise as a tutor for Bianca. Indeed, the tutor scenes involving both Lucentio and Hortensio (one of Bianca’s much older suitors) disguised as would-be tutors were another high point for physical comedy. The attire of the tutors in identical costumes of woollen vests and bowties, but in differing colours, worked well visually and also added to the sense of comedy. Initially attempting to educate Kate, Hortensio leaves the stage, but promptly returns with his ukulele broken around his neck! This simple action demonstrates Kate’s temper and Hortensio’s unsuitability to the position. Later, Hortensio hopes to win Bianca by pretending to be her music teacher but is thwarted by the younger Lucentio’s Latin conjugations which allow him to have more private whisperings with Bianca, whilst Hortensio is left to tune his “instrument”, allowing the innuendo to run high in this scene.
Baptista (John Atkinson) plays the part of the anxious father well, and we feel convinced of his concern for both his daughters. As the programme tells us, “Baptista’s job as a father is to marry off his daughters, and the eldest before the youngest; so far he’s failed…” and this turmoil is well presented as he feels unable to allow Bianca to marry before Kate, yet he is aware of his elder daughter’s awkward disposition. He does seem to initially favour his younger daughter, Bianca, which only adds to Kate’s frustrations. However, in scenes with Petruchio, he does imply that he wants Kate to be happy and marry for love, not just to become part of a financial contract. He also becomes quite annoyed when Petruchio turns up late and inappropriately clothed for his own wedding. There is also a tender moment in which Kate runs to the arms of her father, away from her demanding husband, which is reminiscent of an earlier embrace between Bianca and Baptista, after Kate had tied her sister to a chair. It is pertinent that this occurred during a discussion of possession and how, now they are married, Petruchio considered Kate as belonging to him like a “barn” or general “chattels”.
The part of Grumio (Chris Williams) also deserves a notable mention as he injected another layer of humour into the production and stood out in terms of his convincing performance of an unfairly treated servant. Reminiscent of Charlie Chaplain in terms of both costume and physicality, Grumio also added further to the humorous elements of the play. This physicality was coupled with a wonderful use of voice to convey a range of sentiment. Clad in a purple bridesmaid’s dress for his master’s wedding, he was an amusing sight to behold and harkened back to Shakespeare’s own gender-bending era when the boy-players would dress as women. This duality was emphasised as he was still wearing his bowler hat and brogues and held a small bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other! A moment of sheer ridiculousness passed when Grumio removed his weapon from under his dress to reveal it is a small, plastic carrot.
Biondello (Bridie Smith and Serena Lewis) also deserves a special mention for their musical interludes and general slapstick entertainment. Splitting the role allowed for a greater depth of humour as they became two court jesters bouncing off each other (literally in some cases). The double act evinced several laughs from the audience just for sheer facial expression and reaction to the events on stage. This was particularly evident when they mimed alongside Gremio’s account of Kate and Petruchio’s wedding. Although the songs they sang were not in keeping with the 1950s theme, they were reminiscent of karaoke on a hen-do and as such allowed the modern thread to intertwine with the main play. Regaling us with classics such as “I Will Survive”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, “Somebody to Love” and culminating with “Don’t Stop Believing” as the finale of the show, the duo managed to allow for smooth running at the end of acts and scenes.
In the second half, even a shower of rain did not detract from the action and the players continued as if it wasn’t happening. A simple change of set with the turning around and relocation of the wooden frame allowed for “Tony’s” to become the interior of Petruchio’s house. The table that had earlier served as an ironic candle-lit moment during Petrucio’s initial wooing of Kate now became the main dining table at which no food was actually eaten. This simple subversion of the significance of these instances resonates on a level that does not sit comfortably, as we realise that Kate has been denied even simple pleasures in this relationship. It also prepares us for the escalation of tension and the conclusion which, despite being played for laughs, really is most uncomfortable, as we realise the extent of Kate’s character alteration when juxtaposed with the widow and Bianca. At the start, Bianca seems the model daughter and adheres to stereotypical ideas of femininity and so her refusal to attend on Lucentio at the end of the play may seem to be the smallest act of stubbornness, yet now, in comparison, Kate humbles herself even more and it seems that Bianca is being incredibly unreasonable.
By having a lot of the action come from the audience area, we were drawn into the antics and the proximity increases the level of engagement. This was particularly so when Petruchio launched the newly made bonnet which Kate likes into the audience (directly at this reviewer!) in a demonstration of his power over her and how she needed to learn to make her choices through him. This is reinforced during the debate over whether it is the sun or moon shining at night: the party passed directly in front of the audience and lingered there which made us feel as if we were also being drawn into the dispute. The couple also sat on the steps between the audience seats to watch the action onstage during Bianca’s marriage and the unravelling of the various levels of deception and disguises.
After Bianca’s wedding, all of the cast were on stage as guests and there was a particularly nice touch when, through a snapping sound and the flash of an overhead light, it is as if a photograph of the new extended family had been taken – complete with Kate scoffing a sandwich. As mentioned, Kate’s newly altered behaviour is flaunted when the men place bets on the obedience of their wives and, through her soliloquy, the darkness and ambiguity is established around the unsettling nature of this dedication to command and obedience. This anxiety is somewhat short-lived as the duo of Biondello start to sing their final number and the addition of a glitter ball as well as the stripping of a few cast members to reveal hen-do outfits suggests more of a party atmosphere. Although there is the hint of return to the modern day through this costume change for some of the characters, there is no formal conclusion of the framework and this renders the climax a little confusing as there is a merging between 1950s Italy and 2010s Cardiff for the final medley. This production did not really deal with the underlying gravity of a play which – with modern-day hindsight – seems to be celebrating domestic abuse; Everyman’s production seemed to skim over this aspect, but by drawing out the humour and commanding the comedy so well it allowed for a mockery to be made of the behaviour of the more domineering characters and as such created a very entertaining “two hours traffic” which I would highly recommend. Everyman’s Taming of the Shrew runs until Saturday August 2nd, Sophia Gardens, Cardiff.
p.s. Cardiff Shakespeare has a new twitter account – at the same handle @CardiffShakes. Please re-follow!