First-rate entertainment and unanswered questions in Shakespeare’s comedy

The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew

SHAKESPEARE lovers in this area are lucky to have the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon within fairly easy travelling distance.

But it’s even better when the Royal Shakespeare Theatre comes to us.

Lisa Dillon as Katharina in the RSC's production of The Taming of the Shrew coming to Milton Keynes Theatre in March 2012

Lisa Dillon as Katharina in the RSC's production of The Taming of the Shrew coming to Milton Keynes Theatre in March 2012

The world-class theatre company’s touring production of The Taming Of The Shrew opened last night at Milton Keynes Theatre, and runs until Saturday night.

The trouble with Shakespeare’s comedies is that our experience of them can be limited to second-rate productions of the school play variety.

That was certainly my experience with the Taming Of The Shrew – this was the first time I’d ever seen it done by a quality cast.

And what quality!

Taming of the Shrew

Taming of the Shrew

How wonderful to know that, in this day and age, Shakespeare still has the power to shock, provoke and disturb – quite apart from making an audience howl with laughter.

It’s a tricky play, I felt, to perform for a modern audience. How would theatre-goers of today respond to its central theme of the outspoken ‘ladette’ of a heroine, Katharine, who must be – and is – tamed into a submissive, obedient wife?

How can an audience today go along with such a tale, even just for the duration of the play?

How can they condone the dogged determination of her husband, Petruchio, to tame her – not to mention her eventual and total capitulation?

It’s a tricky one.

Firstly, the audience has to get to a point of accepting that wild Kate must be tamed. Then the gold-digging Petruchio has to get the audience on his side, even though they know he’s only in it for her dowry.

Lisa Dillon managed make Kate so shockingly obnoxious in her behaviour that we longed to see her brought down a peg or two.

And RSC newcomer David Caves brought energy, unpredictability and brooding sex-appeal to the role of Petruchio.

But this is the 21st century, and during Katharine’s long final speech, in which she apparently wholeheartedly entreats other women to submit their will to their husbands as their lords and masters, I sensed much unease in the auditorium.

Where was the feisty Kate whose ferocious independence we had come to grudgingly applaud – even while wincing at her ghastly behaviour?

Had she truly capitulated? Had her proud spirit really been broken? Or had she simply learned – and not before time, we might think – to play the game? I still don’t know.

What I do know is that Shakespeare’s speech, written all those centuries ago, still had the power to make a modern-day audience uncomfortable in their seats and hopefully send them off into the night with unanswered questions in their minds.

Not a bad result for a play that also delivered first-rate entertainment, top-notch acting, a rattling good romp of a yarn and humour by the bucketload.