When I was first introduced to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew I found it amusing and, I think, quite romantic. Forgive me – I was 11, going on 12, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet had recently convinced me that all Shakespeare was romantic!
The truth, as Jo Clifford’s reimagining shows us, is that there is no romance in Shrew.
It is a play within a play, within a play, and you are invited, as an audience, to join in with suspending your disbelief – you are asked to dream, along with the players, of a world where women are the higher power. This alone might put some readers off going – don’t let it. Despite the serious nature of the subject and the action, this production manages to be riotously funny as it explores a matriarchal Shakespearean landscape.
The design (Madeleine Girling), made up of a ring in the centre, voils that separate it from the audience when required, and mic stands and off-set piano all make it clear that this is a “show”; an arena of exploration, with on-stage music and sound effects provided by the cast (predominantly from Hannah Jarrett-Scott who plays a bawdy, arrogant Luciento, unapologetically brandishing an electric guitar like a weapon of lust). The players break character regularly to help explain what’s going on, and to help themselves work out who they are now, and next, and what exactly is happening; there is a lot of fun to be poked at the original in this way as it really does make you realise just how ridiculous the whole idea is.
Using a mix of composed and re-worked songs (such as the opening to Bloody Motherf***ing **shole by Martha Wainwright, ironically sung by Scarlett Brookes’s unnerving Petruchio), the hard-to-digest moments are broken up by musical interjections that the whole cast take part in, though Jarrett-Scott and Alexandria Riley (most often playing Tranio) take the lead in this.
I enjoyed every performance from each actor, whichever character or mode they happened to be playing at different times; I believed in them equally and, for me, it is a triumph that there were no “stand out” performances in this play challenging the absence of equality. It speaks to the quality of their chemistry and what must surely have been a furiously fun and raw rehearsal process. The direction (Michael Fentiman) adds layers of meaning to the reframed, pared down text, illuminating the darker elements including domestic abuse, manipulation and gas lighting. The whole production is carefully balanced in this way; the serious, uncomfortable moments offset by humour and spectacle which allows these subjects to be explored without the whole thing feeling dour and depressing. Instead, you come out with questions around power and identity and how far have we really come in creating an equal, fair society?
If you are interested in seeing something blazingly different, then I’d recommend spending a few bob on tickets to this sassy, sexy, piece of theatre. Just…think about who you take with you as the very faint-hearted might find it a little uncomfortable. Personally, for me that was the draw!
The Taming of the Shrew is a co-production between Sherman Theatre and Tron Theatre Company. Be amazed by it at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until 16th March. Tickets £18 (standard). Check out the website for concessions.