Director Robin Norton-Hale deserves credit for a number of things in her new modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. She presents the core of the play from the usual just-under-3 hours spectacle to a ruthless 2 hours without losing much of the flavour. Her casting is interesting and the production is both imaginative and entertaining. Despite these, it is unsatisfying largely because it doesn’t live up to the expectations created by the director in the programme notes.
This isn’t an easy play for modern audiences and Norton-Hale’s notes suggest that we’ll see how both Katherine (Elexi Walker) and Petruchio (Simon Darwen) ‘are transformed’ by their relationship. This Katherine, we are told, is one who ‘has found someone with whom she can drop her guard’ and ‘it is only with each other that they can stop showing off just how tough they are’. But the portrayal of the relationship between these two characters in this production lacks the promised transformation.
Katherine meets Petruchio, engages in a verbal banter with him and then, within minutes, tacitly agrees to marrying him. In the few minutes of meeting Petruchio, there is not enough material to convince anyone, let alone her own self, that he has struck a chord with her on any level. It also doesn’t help that there isn’t enough of a strong chemistry between Walker’s Katherine and Darwen’s Petruchio. Interestingly, Petruchio has a more dynamic chemistry with Sarah Winn’s Grumio (Petruchio’s servant) and if these two had decided to get married, I would have wholly believed them and cheered them along the way. Darwen’s Petruchio comes across as a ‘lad having a larf’ rather than someone with his own insecurities seeking to test Katherine’s will and her love for him. Her submission to him happens too quickly without any introspection and, unlike Norton-Hale, I don’t think their marriage will have any more success than anyone else’s.
In the last scene, after Petruchio has won a wager amongst his mates as to whose wife is the most obedient, Katherine tells us, in all earnestness, that women should obey their men. A contemporary setting of Shakespeare’s play still adheres to views that are not only unacceptable, but wholly wrong, to us. This saddened me but my sadness turned to incredulity when I saw Baptista (Katherine’s father played by Dave Fishley) welling up with tears at his daughter’s words. He has finally delivered unto the world a daughter who will conduct herself in the manner that is expected of her.
There are references to Padua throughout the play but, confusingly, the action is set in Brixton and we see a set resembling Brixton market selling the usual wares including ‘puna yams’ for a touch of authenticity. Southwark Playhouse’s website suggests that Petruchio ‘shares the same postcode’ as Katherine which is another thing that will confound the audience when they first meet him.
I won’t call this production a triumph for Southwark Playhouse but it is laudable that they’re staging an ambitious, albeit somewhat confusing, modern interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s controversial plays. There are many clever and neat touches in this production for a thoroughly entertaining evening including the Brixton rave party, a London tube journey, Hortensio’s (Giles Roberts) disguise as a modern musician with a funny but poignant rendition of Mad World, Sarah Winn’s cheeky Grumio, the interaction with the audience and an all round good comic acting by the cast. With ticket prices starting at £10, this is superb value for money. It’s all fun but, ultimately, this production offers little in the way of what it promises it will do.
The Taming of the Shrew runs until 29 October. Performance time is approximately 2 hours including an interval. Tickets can be booked online or call 020 7407 0234.