Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Novello Theatre
Published on Culture Wars, 25.02.2009
Just as lipstick does little to disguise a pig, a Shrew caked in cosmetics remains a problem play. Indeed, as Conal Morrison’s commedia-inspired production shows, adding too much colour merely makes it stand out more. His stubborn intent that we should enjoy ourselves, which trails a blaze of pratfalls, comedy accents and innuendo so thick that it has become opaque, leaves the RSC’s latest Taming of the Shrew looking like a children’s entertainer at a funeral.
Morrison’s mistake is to play the Shrew as one might Shakespeare’s lighter comedies rather than use its own merits to mine a humour. The result is two plays in the course of a single evening, strung together with the barest of threads. For while Kate’s transition from fiery independence to burnt out compliance is dark and difficult to watch, it is counterbalanced by a menagerie of clunky comic creations where all is surface frill imposed upon the text itself. Morrison enforces a style of comedy he assumes to be universal and in adding so much, strips much of the play’s force and most of its humour. It seems to stand there screaming: “Why aren’t you laughing?”
Using the original framing device, Christopher Sly (Stephen Boxer) is embroiled in a Shoreditch street party, at which tribal masculinity is ruler and comedy headgear the dress-code, before being himself sucked into the narrative presented by travelling players. In contrast to Michelle Gomez’s beautifully played Katherina, who seems to draw breath to pull a snarl, Boxer’s misogyny appears effortless and almost erotically charged. He had her tamed by the wedding, but continues for his own satisfaction in a tirade of starvation and sleep-deprivation.
To his credit, Morrison circumvents the play’s main problem neatly, albeit without much clarity as to what he’s saying. In gradually morphing the setting from 16th Century Italy, complete with a Renaissance city in miniature, towards a contemporary wedding, Gomez’s Kate is continually out of sorts. In her initial fight, consciously laboured from embitterment of her sister’s preferred status, she resembles a ventriloquist’s dummy possessed. By the end, in her total acquiescence, she seems a plastic clockwork bird – a tiny thing of fancy, but little worth – fragile, tacky and unnatural. In turning to us for her famous last speech, Gomez cuts an isolated figure, preaching to the unconvertible. The world has come to its senses, says Morrison, but for a small few Petruchios. Its flaw, if the masculine smiles and fascination on show at the final wedding dinner are to be interpreted, is the rooted admiration and envy of others that act not so cruelly.
However, by the time Morrison actually achieves some resolution, we have grown so tired of the constant playground energy and surplus comic routines, that no demonstration of intellect and politic can truly stir us. It is a tragedy undermined by a painted smile where gritted teeth should be.
Photograph: Tristam Kenton