Ah, that old problem of the Shrew. This most irksome of Shakespeare’s plays is itself resistant to being tamed, often refusing to bend to directorial interpretations that try to smooth its rough, arguably misogynist edges. It is not a play that I can profess to having much personal fondness for and one that I doubt I will ever come to love, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest attempt certainly has a spirited if slightly over-enthusiastic stab at it.
In director Lucy Bailey’s vivid vision of this troublesome play, the battle of the sexes boils down, ultimately, to sex. Bed is not just the setting for consummation of marriage, but the location for Petruchio and Kate’s entire twisted courtship, with Ruth Sutcliffe’s triumphant, sheet-draped set denoting both subtext and end point. The sparring couple’s struggles are, in this context, simply a bizarre and extended form of foreplay. The bed is also the seat of dreams, making it an appropriate stage for the fantasy drunkenly dreamed by Christopher Sly, another man with sex on the mind who is kept present amongst the action throughout in the humorous form of a gamely slurring, staggering and burping Nick Holder.
But this interpretation is not all about crude gestures, winks and nudges and a tumble between the voluminous sheets. Sex is intriguingly associated with money and, by extension, power. When Baptista, after marrying wild Kate off to Petruchio, offers younger daughter Bianca’s hand in marriage to the man who can make the highest offer, her suitors illustrate their wealth and ‘hangings’ with sexually suggestive actions indicative of their generous endowments – financial or otherwise. Meanwhile, the very crudeness of making the bed a public arena stresses the crudeness and cruelty of the marriage market, in which women and sex become commodities. By breaking away from these rigid, narrow-minded practices, Petruchio and Kate finally reach, by comparison, a more natural union.
The central relationship between ‘shrew’ and ‘tamer’ is of course the focus, carrying the burden of the piece. The sparky, wild dynamic between Lisa Dillon and David Caves bears this burden with attitude, as the pair constantly dance around once another, grapple and come to blows. Bailey has cultivated a particularly physical pairing, presenting us with two misfits who can barely stay still; Caves’ Petruchio paces, struts, fidgets and at one point even drops into press-ups, while Dillon’s hands yo-yo from hips to dishevelled hair in conveying Kate’s anger and agitation. Thus, when rare moments of forgetful stillness do arise, a strange sort of understanding seems to leap the gap between them, eventually bringing them together.
For all its bold and sexy swagger, however, Bailey’s production does not quite surmount the hurdle of this play’s undeniably tricky gender politics. Although Dillon delivers Kate’s final submissive speech in mockingly sarcastic tones, she cannot overcome the meaning behind the words, which are not sufficiently explained away by the relationship that Bailey has crafted. To negotiate the plot’s inherent difficulties we are sold a messed up love story, but despite the sexual chemistry it is a romance that struggles to be credible. Both Kate and Petruchio are certainly screwed up outsiders, but their behaviour in this production is often so outrageous that it becomes difficult to care too deeply for them.
This is sexy, brash, vigorous and often very funny fare, but it fails to fully redeem a play that still feels more than a little unpleasant. In the end, Bailey’s striking if not all that subtle bed concept says it all, in a production that gives us a lot of lust without very much love. As Petruchio and Kate finally, ecstatically jump beneath the sheets, we are left in little doubt that the sex will be great, but the morning after looks to be on rockier ground.