Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Southwark Playhouse

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Of all Shakespeare’s works, The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps the least enduring in its themes. A troubling play for modern audiences, striking an uncomfortably misogynist tone, its portrait of female submissiveness is particularly inconvenient for a production that relocates the gender struggle to modern day London. The characters in Robin Norton-Hale’s updated production may wield smart-phones, but their attitudes remain more seventeenth century than twenty first.

It is a sleek, pruned down version of the Bard’s work that is presented at the Southwark Playhouse, stripped of the framing device involving tinker Christopher Sly and with a good few trims to the remaining text. Cherry Truluck’s design transports us to a London market, where ‘shrew’ Katherine (Elexi Walker) is now feisty city girl Kate and her lover Petruchio (Simon Darwen) a Jack Wills-wearing posh boy. Their implausibly swift nuptials pave the way for both Kate’s ‘taming’ and her flirtatious younger sister Bianca’s (Simone James) own marriage.

In Norton-Hale’s new rendering, the modern touches seem designed for comedy more than any other purpose and gentle fun-poking is the order of the day. There are a good few laughs at the expense of the classic Shakespearean case of mistaken identity, with Hortensio (a hilarious, spot-on Giles Roberts) as a sunglasses-clad musician stealing the show in the disguise stakes, while Roberts scoops another of the great comic moments when ending a call on his mobile phone with a nonchalant ‘anon’. The double act of Will Featherstone and Simon Ginty as mates Lucentio and Tranio respectively also rule on the entertainment front, boasting assured comic performances.

It is in its portrayal of gender relations, however, that this production stumbles. The first encounter between Walker and Darwen crackles with a tangible sexual energy and Norton-Hale has added a dynamic physical intensity to the pair’s relationship, but there is no escaping Petruchio’s efforts to rein in his headstrong wife. Even the best efforts of the spirited Walker to coat her words with amused sarcasm do not quite hold up, while the perpetually lollipop-sucking James as Bianca displays a knowing exploitation of her charms that prompts unsettling questions about the roles women continue to be expected to fulfil in today’s society.

In a male-heavy company, perfectly observed moments of banter in the women’s absence entertainingly recall the masculine crudeness of the Inbetweeners generation, but under closer scrutiny the laughter sours in the mouth. Well might James’ Bianca knit her brow in the final scene as Kate preaches the virtues of feminine obedience; no dose of injected irony can numb the bitter sting of Shakespeare’s ending.

The Southwark Playhouse’s modernised version is one that papers over the cracks with comedy, blotting out the darker side of this often unpleasant play with a riot of garish colour that, enjoyable as it undeniably is, is only ever a superficial gloss. Norton-Hale may put an attractive face on an ugly plot, but like all cosmetic surgery, a closer look exposes the fakery.

The Taming of the Shrew runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 29 October.

Image: Peter Dobiesz

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