As I took my seat, number D37, and planted my buttocks firmly between those of my neighbours’ – you must assert your presence in these situations – I noticed a finely attired young man in the front row. He was dressed as if ready for Sunday Service. Consequently, the ease with which he conversed with his attractive female neighbours surprised me. In Row D we remained British and had proceeded to keep ourselves to ourselves (cheek chafing aside). Understand I am fairly normal in the sense that I do not lick my elbows in public nor attempt to flirt with anyone for fear of accidentally marrying them. This somewhat geeky Casanova just had to be a cast member masquerading as one of us. And sure enough he was: he sprang up and promptly blurted something out, possessed by prose!
His fellow thespians joined him on stage and together they whisked us away to the magical land of Tony’s chip shop, Caroline Street – colloquially known as ‘chippy alley’. The modern-day scene replaces Shakespeare’s own induction. The original works as a device, setting the vast bulk of the play The Taming of the Shrew as a play-within-a-play. Unique in that of all his thirty-seven plays it is the only one to do this. Either Shakespeare was simply testing things out at this early stage in his writing career or it has an intended purpose. Siding with the latter, I believe it was to encourage the audience to view the controversial content that follows with a critical eye. Alternatively, their rather extensive use of modern, “non-Shakespearean” language, the local setting and fairly – cough – contemporary costume was presumably to highlight the play’s ongoing relevance. Instead it alienated me from the on-stage antics: ‘this isn’t Shakespeare!’ a little voice cried in my head, my jowls wobbling. Arguably this alienation lent me the aforementioned critical eye anyway, only in a clumsier manner.
Fortunately Lucentio and Tranio, played by Matt Lody and Richard Atkinson (aka ‘geeky Casanova’) respectively, soon appear with blank verse in tow. It is to be expected some text will be lost with alfresco theatre, even if actors are miked up. However, I lost many of Lucentio’s lines to the open air. Oddly enough, disguised as a Latin teacher his character spoke clearer. Confidence I say! Speak loud, speak clear, we want to hear you! Despite this, the performance managed to communicate the plot physically with effective and economical use of the space; and facial and corporal gestures galore. Should you not catch a few lines, watch the adjacent actor’s reaction and the meaning will be apparent.
Baptista Minola (played by John Atkinson) enters with his two daughters: the younger, beautiful and mild Bianca (played by the beautiful and mild Alys Pearce) and the shrew of the title, Katherine. They are followed by Gremio and Hortensio, each vying for the young sister’s hand (and dowry) in marriage; but here’s the rub – Bianca can’t marry until someone makes Kate a wife, a seemingly impossible task. Accompanied by a particularly effeminate Grumio – seeing Chris Williams in a dress will please many – Petruchio will attempt to tame the shrew.
From here on in we are treated to a picnic of puns, quips and musical numbers. Many have speculated whether Shakespeare intended the play to be ironic or sincere, satirical or misogynistic. This performance encompasses all these in fairly equal measures. As part of the rehearsal process the cast shared their opinions regarding the woman’s role within marriage. Comprising of a father and son, a young couple and new and old old friends of all ages, there was undoubtedly differing views. This comedy will draw in a varied audience of all backgrounds and while it poses a big question, you need to find your own answer.
There were some directorial choices that jarred with me. While many of the characters would indulge in a beer or an inconspicuous swig from a hipflask, Petruchio seemed not to touch the stuff. Usually he is shown as a drunk, a reveller, however here surrounded by alcoholics he seems positively sober and even reasonable; almost the ‘hero’ of the play, lacking the vices to warrant the ‘anti-’. Throughout the play there are some excellent comedic performances: Sarah Bawler as Katherine manages to squeeze the laughs out of every line. However, she never seems much of a match for James Pritchard’s domineering, charismatic Petruchio. The comedy is dropped in the last scene for an earnest delivery of Kate’s speech championing the play’s view of marital harmony: a providing husband complemented by a loyal, subservient wife. It is partially directed to the audience as if an instruction to all women. I felt uncomfortable but it is an uncomfortable speech and transformation. If all sat well something would be very, very wrong!
Further comedic commendation to Phil Jones whose timing and clown-like Pedant had everyone laughing, impressive considering the character isn’t normally funny! He also shared the role of Curtis with Luke Cooper who shuffled about with a hunch to rival Igor’s. The splitting of a character between two actors is twofold with Birdie Smith and Serena Lewis finishing each other’s sentences and delivering an extremely entertaining musical performance as Biondello, Lucentio’s second servant, a minor role made marvellous and very endearing. Toby Harris’s Hortensio is wonderfully unpleasant – in the best possible way – when undercover as a music teacher, despite having as much musical talent as one half of Jedward. Some of his lines were lost amid an exaggerated Italian accent but the comic payoff was worth it. I also liked Paul Fanning as Gremio: though not a particularly funny performance it was evident he enjoyed his character, making it easy for me to do the same.
As for the open-air stage, it is very relaxing to see and feel the night draw in around you and the play. The darkening sky – black by the second half – worked superbly for the scene where Petruchio declares the sun the moon. Director Rebecca Gould rightly embraced the moonshine and decided to set the scene at night. This changing of light is highly symbolic of Kate’s transformation: as her independence is slowly stripped away and the contestable message strengthens the world darkens – a special effect like no other.
For those of you who like your Shakespeare pure, be warned: this has plenty of pop as mixer. With musical hits including Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ getting the Two Biondello’s treatment, it continues the tradition of music in Shakespeare only with less lute (not a bad thing).
Despite my few criticisms, as an amateur theatre company I commend The Everyman’s brave choice of play and thoroughly recommend it to all.
The Taming of the Shrew runs until 2nd August, tickets are £12-£16 (£2 off for under 18s).
For more information and to book tickets on-line visit the Everyman website: www.everymanfestival.co.uk or call the box office on 0333 6663366
Review by Eifion Ap Cadno
A short interview with cast member Phil Jones
How was it rehearsing with the cast of the Everyman Theatre?
Phil: It was really wonderful. It’s a small cast and everyone gets on really well. A lot of us knew each other from previous Everyman productions and outings. We had a lovely director, Rebecca, who was calm and patient with everybody and nurtured a great atmosphere.
What did you make of the modern interpretation of the play?
Phil: When we first heard about it we weren’t too sure but bit by bit it’s come together and even in the very last moments the induction was being tweaked and altered. It creates a link with the people that are watching us, it shows Shakespeare doesn’t need to set in ‘ye olden dayes’, it can be modern and very lively. It’s very fun to be a part of.
What about the question of the woman’s position in a relationship?
Phil: Our aim was always to show the two main characters as quite compatible in some ways. Some relationships thrive on being tempestuous. They’re both sparring partners really, they bounce off each other. It is tricky though, there are some lines that make modern audiences wince a little.
Do you think Kate was tamed in your production?
Phil: No they’ll blow up again! They’ll go on a massive weekend to Brighton and have a massive argument! I’m gonna get a beer now.
A short interview with cast member Alys Pearce
How was it working with the cast?
Alys: Is this on record? Yes? Oh okay. Ummm. It’s been like a rollercoaster of lollipops and tornadoes but fun ones like in Wizard of Oz.
Were these difficult tornadoes?
Alys: It’s a very difficult subject in the play to tackle and everyone has different points of view. So for us all to agree on one point of view and how to deliver it was a challenge. Our director didn’t say ‘this is how I want to do it’, it was very much a group decision. We sat down and had lots of conversations. We all have our own subjective reactions to Kate’s speech at the end.
Is your character, Bianca, happy in the end?
Alys: Yes because she has a pretty rich husband.
Pretty rich or pretty and rich?
Alys: All of the above. It’s a plus that he’s pretty. I feel so weirdly nervous doing this!
How’s working with Rebecca Gould been?
Alys: She gives a lot of the responsibility to the cast. She’s a very free director and she can let you do your own thing which is sometimes nerve-wracking. You’ll think ‘what do I do? Is this okay??’ but you have to make your own decisions. She’s a good guide.
Are you happy with tonight’s opening performance?
Alys: I’m so so thrilled, I felt a proper buzz tonight. I was completely uncertain to the last minute but I’m happy with how it’s been received. People seemed to clap and laugh and stuff, no one cried or threw bananas. There were moments when people booed, like during Petruchio’s ‘this is a way to kill a wife with kindness’ speech which was brilliant because James Pritchard handled it with a great ‘who’s gonna speak against me’ attitude. Ultimately I hope it’s accessible!