The Taming of the Shrew

Riverside Theatre, May 7


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Robert Alexander as Baptista and Danielle King as Katharina. Photo supplied.

The three Shakespeare plays that can work modern readers and audience members in ideological lathers are The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew, with the latter containing one of the most polarising speeches in the entire canon. Yet to approach any of the plays with ideas thick-set in our heads is to miss the quicksilver sport of the intelligence that lies behind these works. Try to compress Shakespeare into the box of sexism or even misogyny and he will be as slippery as an eel. For every line of evidence one way, another will be found for the other side. This is the very nub of his genius.

Katharina wraps up the play by telling us:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign…/ And craves no other tribute at thy hands/ But love, fair looks and true obedience…

The modern feminist may well be horrified and the modern male sheepish. Yet a closer reading suggests the speech is much more about reciprocity in a relationship rather than subjugation. Besides, might not there be a little irony at work at the conclusion of a play in which half the characters have pretended to be something other than they are? In fact one can well ask if Katharina is truly shrewish in the first place. She certainly works off a short fuse, but then so would many when surrounded by such imbeciles, sharks and knaves as people the play. She has a heart that longs for a better world than the one she inhabits, and forthrightly expresses her frustration. Shrewish? She barely says enough to warrant that epithet.

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James Lugton as Petruchio watches over a sleeping Katharina. Photo supplied.

In this resurrection of a past Sport For Jove production, director Damian Ryan has Danielle King play Katharina as a pioneering, daredevil aviatrix, while the tangle of her sister’s suitors are practitioners or hangers-on in the Italian silent-movie industry of a century ago. Of course King’s Katharina is not going to settle for a passionless sop. She needs someone large-than-life, like herself, or no one.

Ryan has James Lugton play Petruchio as a sea captain; one who also lives life to the full and who won’t settle for second best. The crucial point is that this is no arranged marriage and Kate is no prize-bride: they actually fall in love. Lugton and King have the capacity and chemistry to make the characters big and the stakes bigger. What is missing is sufficient sexual frisson between them, because it is this that should really drive they play’s subtext.

The rest of the cast is packed with SFJ regulars (such as Christopher Stalley, Eloise Winestock, Lizzie Schebesta and Terry Karabelas) who are expert at extracting every laugh from the text (and from outside of the text) under Ryan’s guidance, so one smiles contentedly through much of the production, and laughs aloud for the rest. One also leaves reasonably sure that rather than being a meek, submissive wife, Katharina will be a warm-hearted partner in making a rollicking marriage work. I won’t spoil it, but Ryan’s final ensemble image is beautifully poignant.

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 19-28.