“It will make the man mad, to make a woman of him”
It is nigh on impossible to put on a production of The Taming of the Shrew these days without first considering how to solve the issues that lie at the heart of this problematic play. Last year saw the Globe play it for laughs hugely successfully and it also saw the RSC up the erotic ante with less effective results, we now get the all-male Propeller interpretation in London which takes a yet different route into one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works. In direct contrast with their take on Twelfth Night, there is a marked lack of sexual attraction in this world, instead this is firmly a tale about power and control and just how brutal the male exercising thereof can get.
Ed Hall’s production plays up the framing device of Christopher Sly’s drunken shenanigans and firmly locates the main body of the story, of Petruchio’s brutish diminishment of the spirited Kate, in the play-within-a-play. This is achieved mainly by the rather nifty device of having Sly himself co-opted into being part of the play put on for his benefit – Vince Leigh’s sizzled tinker morphing into a viciously virile Petruchio who then becomes the calculatingly hard focal point, failing to realise just what is being revealed of his true self in the telling of this tale.
It’s an effective technique to be sure and one which proves hauntingly dark as the play progresses and Petruchio bends Kat further and further to his will until all sense of her former self has apparently been eradicated. Dan Wheeler’s punk-inspired feistiness as Kat is so powerfully drawn to begin with – her independence characterised by its own closeness to violence – that the psychological damage that is inflicted on her, especially as detailed in the starkly moving final submission, is especially harrowing. There’s no hint of sexual attraction here, just an uneasy compliance “such [as] a woman oweth to her husband” and the way in which the play then ends leaves us unsettled as it suggests an all-too-convincing unending cycle of woe.
But there’s also a good deal of Propeller’s usual off-beat humour, allowed to work its way in to remind us of the artificiality of the play-within-a-play conceit. So flying beanbags, the Joy of Sex, noodle throwing and men in thongs jostle with a sprightly rock-inspired soundtrack, and the company get to play fast and loose with their characters: Ben Allen makes a fantastically motor-mouthed Biondello, John Dougall’s Gremio is full of amusingly extemporised gubbins and Arthur Wilson is all sharp cheekbones and flirty glances as a fierce Bianca. We are never too far from the anarchic sense of fun that makes this company endlessly watchable but the careful interpretation of the text ensures that we are never allowed to fall complacent and thus remain challenged by the baser notes of human nature as revealed here.