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While the Barbican’s production of Kiss Me, Kate tackles The Taming of the Shrew with irony, Jude Christian’s new staging of Shakespeare’s problematic play seizes on the original’s framework — in which a group performs the play to Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker — to bring a potent contemporary twist to the drama’s sexual politics. 

Here, it’s not a tinker but a sozzled punter (Nigel Barrett) who emerges noisily from the standing crowd to get dragged into the action. He begins by encouraging a singalong to Tom Jones’s “Delilah” (clever move, getting the audience to enjoy a song about jealous murder) and harassing young women who are standing near the stage. One of them complains, receiving the classic “can’t-you-take-a-joke” dismissal — “In this country, we have a sense of humour!” he bellows — at which point the watching onstage actors take it upon themselves to “treat” this misogynist throwback to a comedy that will present him with the ugly end point of his logic. 

In an age when we often hear about how feminism has gone too far, and when the likes of Andrew Tait are ragingly popular, this is smart. Christian plays the ensuing drama as a kind of patriarchal fever dream — a knockabout, carnivalesque comedy, part Punch and Judy, part Hieronymus Bosch, on a kindergarten set (design by Rosie Elnile) dominated by a giant, stuffed baby doll. The actors, dressed like cartoon versions of medieval mummers, somersault and caper, brandishing puppets and walloping each other with foam rollers. Sly either watches on the sidelines from a playpen, nursing his hangover, or joins the hurly-burly as one of Bianca’s suitors. 

It’s bizarre in the extreme, but this is a take that leans hard into the comedy of the original, while at the same time emphasising the cruelties at its heart. They’re at the heart of much physical comedy, too: when we first meet Petruchio he is bashing his servant, in line with many commedia dell’arte characters and, indeed, much of the plot of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. This begins amusing but turns sour as one thrashing becomes brutal.

That young woman from the audience, meanwhile, finds herself pressed into action as Katharina, plunged into a mad world where her protests are met only with punishment. Christian creates a nightmarish dissonance between absurd comic mayhem and the ugly story that dominates the play. That line “we have a sense of humour” echoes through the show.  

Even given the rationale, however, it soon feels like a long joke and the style begins to grate. The whole subplot, involving Katharina’s sister Bianca (symbolically played by a puppet) and her multiple suitors, strains for effect, seems to drag on and has little impact: surrealism starts to get in the way of basic comprehension. The concept swamps everything else and by losing a specific social setting we lose some of the gravity of the entrenched attitudes on view.

Amid all this, Andrew Leung’s Petruchio is quietly very nasty — a smarmy, psychopathic little creep — and Thalissa Teixeira is excellent as Katharina, tracing a journey from bewilderment through horror to broken submission. Her final appearance, cowering and quaking, is pitiful: a stark contrast to the confident young woman we saw stride on to the stage. At one point she pleads with the audience to help her. She is trapped in a nightmare, the butt of a comedy that’s no longer funny. It’s a good argument, but one that’s pushed too strenuously. However we try, it’s still hard to tame The Taming of the Shrew.


To October 26, shakespearesglobe.com

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