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.