From Elizabeth Taylor’s screeching Kate to Cole Porter’s campy musical number ‘I Hate Men’ to Heath Ledger’s paintballing Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew often falls victim to the impetus to produce a new, never-before-seen take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy. But the Thelma Holt/OUDS Summer Tour production of The Taming of the Shrew has successfully resisted the pitfalls of anachronistic, postmodern interpretation and gives us a refreshingly faithful rendition of Katherine’s cursedness, Bianca’s sweetness, Lucentio’s lovelorness, and Petruchio’s capriciousness.
Let me be direct: director Alice Hamilton’s production is good. Very good. Her ensemble betrays no weak links and each of the players handled their lines with the grace and deftness that this battle of wills and wits requires. They also prove to be quite adept singers, with the choral interludes between scenes complementing the action and the tone of the piece. Ed Peace’s Katherine is not merely a perversely ‘cursed wench’; she gives bonny Kate the psychological depth she deserves, seeking her father’s love through negative attention with her hair-pulling antics. Petruchio, played by Jacob Taee, evokes in his audience the same love and play with language that the character exhibits. Most refreshing, however, is the production’s the treatment of Katherine’s speech in the final scene. It inevitably sounds a bit misogynistic to our postmodern, post-feminist ears; I braced myself for Pearce to play against the lines and somehow try to twist the text into the discourse of a prenatal suffragette. But the lines themselves won out and in all their anachronistic glory proved a testament to the strength of the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine that the text works so hard to engineer.
The lone shortcoming of this Taming? The sporadic appearance of modern clothes that jarred, probably intentionally, against the otherwise period dress. The producer kindly explained to me their role in gesturing towards the meta-theatricality of the text with the all but forgettable pre-beat in Shakespeare’s original setting up the familiar play-within-a-play trope. While I appreciate the sentiment, having Tranio turn up in a denim jacket and 80’s sunglasses, or Petruchio appearing in less than shocking wedding apparel (just a rather nice pair of red trousers and argyle vest), did not read as gesturing to anything other than perhaps a budget shortcoming. Combined with a confusing Brechtian pre-beat which features the actors wandering around staging mumbling their lines, this production only struggled when it strayed from its greatest strengths: its commitment to the play as it was originally staged in all its 16th century glory. But aside from these minor distractions, this Taming of the Shrew succeeds where most versions fail and delivers a truly enjoyable experience in the lovely Magdalen College Gardens. It can only garner the response of Petruchio himself after his tamed Kate’s final speech: ‘Is not this well?’
The show will be playing in Magdalen College Gardens July 21 through July 24 before commencing its tour of Stratford, London and Japan. Ticket details can be found on the website: www.tamingoftheshrew2010.co.uk.