Ambitious production has deliberate sting
By Caitlin McGrane
For my money, The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays for modern audiences; it is difficult to reconcile what is essentially the story of a strong women being abused and subjugated into an emotional wreck with modern politics and female emancipation. Melbourne University’s Shakespeare Company’s production of the play is an ambitious undertaking that seeks to draw out the darkness beneath the humour that so often goes unnoticed and shine a bright and unflinching spotlight on domestic violence.
The story is that five suitors compete for the love of the two Minola sisters; one, Bianca (Bridie Pamment) is a mild-mannered ingénue, and the other Katerina (Amelia Burke) is ‘shrewish’ and tempestuous. Their mother has decreed that Bianca may only marry when Katerina is wed, which may prove a difficult task because she likes to shout at men and doesn’t consider any of them interesting enough to bother with (Katerina and I have this pastime in common).
The whole cast did an excellent job with a difficult text and an even more challenging brief. Shakespearean text is thorny, because each performer needs to be on the same page, feeding off other cast members, while delivering their own lines with vim and vigour. There were moments during the performance where the performers fell slightly short of this – acting well as individuals, but not quite forming a cohesive whole. Katerina and Petruchio (Lewis McDonald) worked well together, and I particularly enjoyed McDonald’s Australiana-inflected interpretation of the male protagonist.
While the production was well directed by Fiona Spitzkowsky and Declan Mulcahy, I found the play overlong and tonally uneven in places when Katerina’s abuse became almost unbearable to watch. Certainly this kind of frankness can be a useful device, but in my mind modern audiences have seen abuse on stage and screen enough times to know what it looks like. It would moreover have been good to focus on one thing happening on stage at a time; sometimes it felt like Lucientio (Oscar Shaw) was in a play of his own creation. The minimalist set was well designed by Gabrielle Lewis, and the lighting (Jaiden Leeworthy) was used to great effect. Costume designer Bec Poynton also did a terrific job injecting modernity into the outfits referenced in the script.
I enjoyed the play more thinking about it after I left the theatre, when I could appreciate its creative ambitions. It will certainly be interesting to see what else the cast and crew go on to do.
The Taming of the Shrew is showing at the Guild Theatre in Union House at the University of Melbourne until 24 October. Tickets: http://goo.gl/kUGjLZ