ReviewShakespeare

“The Taming of the Shrew” at the Globe Theatre

Simon Jenner on the South Bank
30 June 2024

“He was part of my dream. But then I was part of his dream too.” It’s not often Alice in Wonderland strays into this disturbingly adult play. But a brief Induction, often cut, induces a very different midsummer dreamworld to The Taming of the Shrew directed by Jude Christian at the Globe till 26 October, with a summer break.

 

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

 

Here a drunken Christopher Sly (in Nigel Barrett’s magnificent entry through the groundlings) is persuaded by the cast he’s a Lord and a play is being set up for him. He pulls out and drenches a young woman from the audience to play lead. She drenches him in return. And so Katharina (Thalissa Teixeira) is as unwillingly recruited for acting as for her marital role.

It is an absurdist’s dreamworld too, but pacey, just under two and a half hours. Designers Rosie Elnile and Emeline Beroud have reified a dreamscape as a soft-toy stage; where a giant white elephant-teddy squats across the stage wall with an abdominal opening. A huge fire balloon-puppet at one point towers over 20 feet high. Many masks are worn facially and abdominally, in Emma Brunton’s puppetry and movement that sharpen farce and soften the sexual politics.

Up to a point. Teixeira’s vivid, deeply felt performance will have none of it. Her unwillingness, playing against farce, is part of what this production is about. Because under the guise of soft toys and infantilism come coercion, control, gaslighting.

Katherina’s “shrew” status also means her father – Simon Startin’s black-bespectacled Baptista is a tyrannical booby – has forbidden her younger sister Bianca to marry till Katherina is: yet no one dares and Katherina is hostile to all. Bianca (a spirited, sometimes Kate-worthy Sophie Mercell) is quickly noticed by slickly amorous Lucentio (Yasmin Taheri) and they make a warm match, aided by servant Tranio (Tyreke Leslie, stopping the show with vivid touches of over-deliberation), with whom he swaps places.

Barrett’s Sly almost overshadows his more extensive role as suitor to Bianca, Gremio. In pursuing Bianca, Gremio’s rivalled by Hortensio (Lizzie Hopley) as they both don large gargoyle-masks to their bodies, so tongues protrude as penile. And Hortensio has another such weapon, his friend Petruchio: in mourning, in need of money and to “wive and thrive”.

Petruchio (a commanding Andrew Leung) is here every bit the smooth-talking bully of darker Petruchios, household Petruchios in fact. Leung’s charm and razor wit though do excite Teixeira’s Katherina to riposte, and a violence mirrored in the way Petruchio treats his servant Grumio. There is real chemistry in their verbal recognition of each other.

But badinage and beatings seem Petruchio’s intimacy direction for living. Indeed Haruka Kuroda’s fight and intimacy work radiates out from Petruchio to the whole cast, posing as slapstick.

There are many points in the play where sexual attraction – and surely wit is the quickener – lends some clue as to subtext and private meaning. Here though it is clear Katherina never consents to marriage, is half-starved and stripped, then staggers sleepless into trauma. Teixeira’s so convincing you can’t see a way back to comedic endings, let alone her navigating her famous speech at the end.

Indeed the comedy in Jamie-Rose Monk’s terminally sweary stage manager – badgering players on and offstage – adds a plot twist no one expects. As manager/Vincentio (Lucentio’s enraged father) they provide the shock of the production.

If the default coercion and bullying carries no sexual charge, if the furious and (cut) gentler exchanges don’t allow the subtext of mutual attraction and this Kate laughing back at us (as one essay in the programme suggests), then the only rationale is the snoring limits of Sly’s sloshed misogyny. The intro shapes the outrage. But are we to be bounded in Sly’s nutshell and call it an infinite place?

 Elsewhere, Eloise Secker’s Grumio endures Dromio-like beatings that here at least allow requital. By contrast Biondello (John Cummins), whose loyalty to Lucentio goes distinctly unrewarded, cuts a hapless figure. A sourly unwilling Merchant (Matthew Ashforde) and very willing Widow (Syakira Moeladi) complete the cast.

 Corin Buckeridge’s music provides welcome bursts and memorable snatches. Music can sometimes explain this work away, like the soft toys. And though the band’s punchy quintet line-up can drown lyrics occasionally, it fuels adrenaline nicely.

It is brave and necessary to revive Sly’s prologue, though here something subtler and more interactive with him (as a trounced Gremio/Sly perhaps) could yield more. As it is, Katherina’s edgy, eggshell-brittle elegy to herself reads oddly: it transmits both studied supplication and unresolved feeling.

There is no avoiding extremes in Shakespeare’s most sexually abusive depiction. Not all disagreeables should evaporate, as Keats put it. Some need to though, revealing dramatic surprise as something not simply beaten out of Kate: her Katherina. Otherwise the cast’s zany farce, their palpable joyousness, stands for something darker. As if signalling wildly from an open prison.