The Taming of the Shrew; The Merchant of Venice
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
While the RSC’s Histories sequence is rightly grabbing critical and popular acclaim in London, what’s left for visitors to Stratford over the summer? To The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice will shortly be added a revised revival of Gregory Doran’s Midsummer Night’s Dream from 2005, followed by Hamlet with David Tennant in August and Love’s Labour’s Lost in October. All this in the temporary Courtyard Theatre while the alarmingly ruinated fragments of the old theatre by the river await their transformation.
There’s good news and bad in the season’s openings. The battle-of-the-sexes popularity of The Shrew is easy enough to understand, though as most productions are little better than parody, I tremble for its reasons. The new staging’s director is Conall Morrison from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Maybe it’s taken a touch of the Irish to get The Shrew right by playing it not just as a ‘comedy’, which it assuredly is, but as one in the knockabout style of the commedia dell’arte visiting companies which the youthful Shakespeare may have seen in London and would certainly have heard about. (There’s an excellent piece on this in the programme.)
Extreme comic stylisation is what the play’s about and which it here receives in full and hilarious measure, with invigoratingly fresh performances in the central roles by Stephen Boxer (familiar as Joe Fenton in the BBC’s Doctors) and Michelle Gomez (Sue White in Channel 4’s Green Wing). Although there’s no novelty in treating Petruchio’s taming of Kate as the dream of the drunkard Christopher Sly, Morrison does so with ingenious mastery of its possibilities. At the beginning Sly is slung out from a party where he’s groped a pole dancer. Rescued from the gutter, a posh lady and her pals jestingly set him up as a Lord. A pantechnicon backs on to the stage, disgorging a troupe of players (think Hamlet) who’ll perform to please his pseudo-Lordship. In no time, Sly joins the troupe as Petruchio and so the fun begins.
The coup de théâtre of Morrison’s ending is too good to be given away. Suffice it that Sly is left a shivering victim of the indulgence of his fantasy. There’s delicious ambiguity in the characterisation, suggesting (at any rate to me) that Michelle Gomez is always the actress ‘playing’ the role of Sly’s fantasy (playing up to him, as it were). She affects a superb hauteur, her eyes telling us everything her body affects to deny. She’s a cat caught between wanting to purr in response to the thrill of Petruchio’s rough wooing, and striking out to retain her pride. The explosive physicality of their sparring is doubtless wish-fulfilment from both sides. Its vibrant intensity plays superbly against the hilarious dottiness of the commedia high jinks going on all around them, with Keir Charles’s Tranio and Sean Kearns’s Hortensio especially entertaining. This is as good a Taming as you’ll find, richly enjoyable and discovering more in the play than you’d ever suspect.
Hard to believe it’s this same ensemble that crashes out with The Merchant, showing what a mighty difference a director can make. With the possible exception of the stamping dances with which Tim Carroll begins and ends the play, he does nothing significant to thaw the chill at its core. Indeed, he’s so anxious to avoid exciting its burning issues that they simply fizzle out. It was only valiant efforts from the secondary characters that kept one awake.
Angus Wright’s Shylock is a stick-thin figure in his three-piece city suit, all emotion internalised, all utterance within a narrow window of calmly rational discourse. There’s no amplitude to the character and even less humour, an essential ingredient in any Shylock, and indeed in the play as a whole. His insistence on the ‘pound of flesh’ is simply the expression of the hurts and wrongs he’s for too long suffered from the prodigal Christians. Anger at last erupts as he’s about to plunge his knife into the breast of the pinioned Antonio, then subsides as swiftly at his defeat. His acquiescence in his sentence to baptism and bankruptcy is that of a dead man walking. But then that’s pretty much what he’s been throughout the show.
This is a fatal devaluation of the dramatic conflict that should exist between Shylock and his unlovely antagonists. Antonio, their leader, looks and sounds as though he might owe his wealth to a string of garages. Why didn’t the contemporaneity crudely urged upon the piece by Carroll at least plump for making him a sub-prime speculator? In the interval everyone was talking about Portia’s figure-hugging gown, not a word about the lady herself; nor can there be much to say about Georgina Rich’s prosaic way with her magical verse. Nor about the failure to allow the power of music to cast its redemptive spell after the purgatorial experience of Shylock’s trial. But enough. This dismal production has little business on a Stratford stage.