While it appears good sense to ask a woman director to grapple with the seemingly misogynistic Taming of the Shrew, there’s a serious snag. For as Gale Edwards remarked apropos her 1995 RSC production, any woman director ‘might as well get a loaded shotgun and put it against her temple’ because half the critics will find your effort insufficiently radical and feminist, while the other half will ‘shoot you down in flames’ because any feminist slant would be untrue to a play that is ‘meant to be about the surrender of love’. This at least lays out the challenge. The good news from Stratford is that the RSC’s latest director, Lucy Bailey, meets it so brilliantly as to be in no danger from any shotgun.
This is simply because she sees that the trick is to show Petruchio (David Caves) and Katherina (Lisa Dillon) as two vigorously sexual people up against a Padua of money-grubbing old men and of young men whose marital expectations can’t see beyond a dowry and a pretty face. The so-called ‘taming’ has therefore next to nothing to do with obedience and female submission but everything to do with a skilfully protracted foreplay between two highly energised human equals.
Any number of theses have been devoted to the role of the bed in Elizabethan drama so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to discover the entire playing area as the surface of an immense rumpled bed. Certainly a nicely cushioned surface for knockabout high jinks and fun with mysterious motions under the covers. No shortage of pillows and bolsters for the fights and flying feathers which punctuate the action.
Lucy Bailey goes with the Induction that introduces the Petruchio–Kate story as the dream of the drunkard Christopher Sly. She keeps him on stage throughout, even though that’s a departure from the authoritative Folio text. At the start he’s amusingly given a ‘wife’, in the shape of a boy in drag, and tucked up with her at the front left corner of the great bed. But thereafter his omnipresence becomes tiresome, not least his participation in the lovemaking of Lucentio and Bianca, as glimpsed though an open shutter in the panelled wall at stage rear.
The costumes are intended to suggest late-1940s Italy. Bailey shows that the narrow mercantile society is as much a provocation to Petruchio and Kate as their behaviour is to that society. It’s strange, though, that her father Baptista and more or less everyone else are not seriously put out by the outrageous behaviour, up with which they happily put as an unexpected solution to the problem of getting Kate mated before Bianca can be bartered. But after all this is a play, even a drunkard’s dream fantasy, so the bystanders’ behaviour is treated as sheer knockabout comedy. The scene in which Bianca is illicitly courted by her admirers disguised as tutors is especially hilarious. There’s a very good end to the first half when everyone can relax with massive relief that madcap has been madly mated to madcap and that bride and groom have disappeared so that normal life can carry on as usual.
David Caves and Lisa Dillon are finely matched, each as uninhibitedly physical as the other. At no point does Dillon’s feisty blonde Kate seem defeated by any of her trials, even the deprivation of food. In a smart bid to master this towering Northern Irish-accented hunk, she attempts to bring an end to the fooling by undoing his belt, and you sense it’s only with difficulty that Caves’s Petruchio fends her off.
The endgame begins with a superb ‘sun or moon’ scene, here for the first time Kate becoming complicit with Petruchio in the make believe, triumphantly sharing his philosophy that it’s by learning to play, to become actors, that we become truly human. This opens the way to a masterful delivery by Dillon of Kate’s notorious ‘submission’ speech. She points it so cleverly as to suggest, to their palpable discomfort, that it was the sweet Bianca and Hortensio’s ‘loving widow’ who would all too quickly be exposed as the only shrews in town. As Kate remarks immediately after Petruchio’s mockery of the conventional wedding, ‘a woman may be made a fool, if she had not a spirit to resist’. The field at long last lies clear for the equivictorious Petruchio and Kate to strip off and put the immense bed to its proper use.