The Taming of the Shrew by the RSC at The Royal Shakespeare
Theatre, March- November 2003.
Sheffield Hallam University
Hopkins, Chris. "Review of The Taming of the Shrew." Early
Modern Literary Studies 9.3 (January, 2004): 16.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/shrewrev.html>.
Directed by Gregory Doran. Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Lighting
designed by Tim Mitchell. Music by Paul Englishby. With Ian Gelder as Baptista
Minola, Alexandra Gilbreath as Katherine, Eve Myles as Bianca, Jasper Britton
as Petruchio, Nicholas Tennant as Grumio, Paul Chahidi as Hortensio, Christopher
Godwin as Gremio, Daniel Hawksford as Lucentio, Rory Kinnear as Tranio,
Simon Trindler as Biondello, John Lightbody as Curtis, Bill Nash as Nathaniel,
Nathan Rimell as Joseph, Tom Anderson as Nicholas / A Haberdasher, Christopher
Harvey as Philip / A Tailor, Oliver Maltman as Peter, David Peart as Adam
/ Vincentio, Keith Osborn as Rafe / Pedant, Esther Ruth Elliot as Widow
/ Sugarsop, Beth Vyse as a Maid.
- This was a thoroughly thought-through production, which imagined original
ways of performing Shrew's three main players: Petruchio, Katherine
and Bianca. Additionally, it made sense of every part and displayed excellent
ensemble performances, so that Tranio, Biondello, the Widow and the servants
in Petruchio's house were all (to varying degrees) more than devices, more
than comic turns (though many were that too). There were superb interpretations
by Jasper Britton, Alexandra Gilbreath and Eve Myles as Petruchio, Katherine
and Bianca, as well as excellent performances by the cast as a whole. All
the acting was characterised by strong conceptions of character and situation,
as well as by a real depth of persuasive performance detail. It was a pleasure
to see every aspect of theatre – set, costume, movement, interpretation of
lines and character – working so well together to reveal new possibilities
in the text.
- To start with the text: the induction scene was cut entirely, so that the
audience was plunged straight into the cut and thrust of the business of marriage
in the Minola household, without any cushioning reference to the theatre as
a place of transformation and illusion. Elsewhere there was much ingenious
pointing of the text (for example, in Tranio's halting and anxiety-inducing
impersonation of his master Lucentio's class dialect) and some ad libbing
in ensemble scenes (the Widow makes a pointed gesture and inaudible aside
at Katherine's wedding as they await Petruchio, suggesting a later motivation
for Katherine's worsting of her in the final scene). More weightily, the production
picked up the text's hurried reference to Petruchio's father's death – usually
treated as a mere plot enabler – and created from it a subtly suggested motivation
for Petruchio's behaviour to Katherine. This Petruchio felt the loss – and
it seemed to precipitate a desperate need for a clear masculine identity which
his father had previously guaranteed. Though few lines in the text refer to
Petruchio's father, the production found ways of sustaining the reference
through the set design and through Petruchio's acting out of his anxieties.
Thus, Petruchio's grief-stricken announcement of his father's death, 'Antonio
my father is deceased' (I.2), was followed by a moment of silence and paralysis,
as if he could not, for a moment, face the trauma of having to inhabit the
identity of the patriarchal male (the ghost of his father?) who had undertaken
to tame Katherine. Similarly, when Petruchio arrived with Katherine at his
home on their wedding night and denied her all comforts – food, warmth, companionship
– he was left on stage after her desolate departure to bed, equally desolate,
taking down and clutching the prominent portrait of his father. It was an
oddly moving and highly interpretable moment: did his emotion stem from his
sense that he was merely performing rather than possessing patriarchal power,
that he was the shadow of his father, or was he seeking the dead father's
approval by taking actions which redoubled his own loneliness as he sent away
the one companion who might replace the intimacy felt with his dead parent?
- The set suggestively supported related ideas of the complexities of identity
in this society. The stage sported some twenty-nine doors – some at ground
level, others opening off two suspended galleries, yet others opening out
of the walls of the proscenium arch or half-concealing the musicians in their
gallery in the wings. This multiplicity of doors contrasted interestingly
with the single door which dominated the RSC's paired production of The
Tamer Tamed: here, there was no simple contrast between outside and inside,
between public and private (especially as nearly all the doors stood alone,
entrances and exits through nothing). As one door shut behind a character,
another opened, but then shut in its turn. Identity had many entrances – or
exits. Thus, in the opening scene Katherine made loud reference to Ibsen's
A Doll's House as she repeatedly slammed the door of her father's house
– but there was nowhere to run to offstage: her protests at her treatment
by father, by Bianca and by Bianca's suitors simply seemed to reinforce their
conviction that their categorisation of her as a shrew was an inescapably
true and natural description.
- Bianca is usually portrayed as using the role of good daughter for her
own ends, and this production was no exception. What was new was that she
displayed a real distaste for all her suitors: her role meant she had to play
to, and with, them, but she showed no personal interest at all. When Lucentio
kissed her hand as he pushed her on a swing, she was disgusted. The only moment
at which she showed real emotion was when she was dismissed by her father
after disobeying her husband in the last scene. Perhaps her loss here echoed
that of Petruchio, bringing the play back at its end to the disturbing yet
intimate power of fathers for both men and women.
- The twenty-nine doors, variously employed as the doors of the Minola Household,
the entrance to Gremio's house, and church doors, formed the set for the majority
of the play. The one scene change was reserved for the moment when Petruchio
and Katherine reached his house on their wedding night. The abstract and multiple
doors were here replaced by a single door into Petruchio's house from the
outside world, and by a staircase up to one of the suspended galleries. This
was, perhaps, a chance for Katherine (and Petruchio?) to achieve an actual
identity in a substantial household space. As the newlyweds came in from a
snow-storm, the overall effect recalled the house at Wuthering Heights in
one of its better phases. The solid comforts of this house were absolutely
apparent – a host of willing and competent servants, a roaring fire, food
at command - but Petruchio conjured all comfort out of existence, not allowing
Katherine to take up the role of wife to which she seemed already well-disposed
by this stage of the production.
- In fact, this Katherine was won over by Petruchio at a very early stage.
Though she was a furious figure at the opening of the play, driving all before
her, dressed as if she were a slovenly servant and slamming every possible
door, Petruchio did much to persuade her that he was the man for her at their
first meeting, when she laughed her head off at his vulgar joke about tongues
and tails - though she struck him afterwards (II.1). She came to the wedding
in a conventional (if clearly constraining) wedding dress, ready to be admitted
into conventional womanhood. But Petruchio did not oblige her, the production
cumulatively suggesting that it was as much, or more, his need to achieve
an identity as her resistance that drove him to his further acts of 'taming'.
Alexandra Gilbreath's performance of Katherine was an extraordinary one: she
switched her appearance from that of a desperate, habitually furious middle
aged woman to that of a flattered (if suspicious) young beauty as Petruchio
wooed her (at first) with Petrarchan descriptions of her charms. Her re-transformation
into a desperate and hungry woman delivered into the power of an evident lunatic
at his house was a moving reversal. However, there was a turning point in
Petruchio's house: in this production she got to keep the cap (IV.3). Petruchio,
having declared it unfit for her, turned the right red cap inside out so that
the brown lining was displayed. Katherine snatched the bonnet from him, clutching
at whatever comfort she could, and wore it inside out for the rest of the
- The suggestion of the couple's ability henceforth to turn roles inside
out was potently signalled by this idiosyncratic yet strangely fetching bonnet.
As Petruchio turned sun into moon, old man into young maid, Katherine seemed
to re-accept him as she gave up on the dullness of common sense and entered
into the peculiar game he played with the world. By the time it came to the
final wager, she and he seemed to be working like a slick team of con-artists,
imitating a conventional relationship for their own ends. The performance
of Katherine's submission speech was perfect - but it was clearly a performance.
Having won their wager, the couple ridiculed the connections between gender
hierarchy and property by jointly pouring the contents of the money bags they
had won over the floor in front of the assembled households. If by this stage
Petruchio had attained an identity in which he could live, it was not like
that of the play's respectable fathers, but rather a mad and revealing parody.
Responses to this piece intended for
the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).