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Review: Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew @ YMCA Cardiff

Postiwyd gan Tom W o Caerdydd - Cyhoeddwyd ar 14/02/2014 am 11:23
0 sylwadau » - Tagiwyd fel Comedi, Diwylliant, Hanes, Llwyfan, Materion Cyfoes

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Cardiff University Drama Society, YMCA Cardiff

Wednesday, 12th February, 2014

…for I am he born to tame you, Kate…

In a world where men rule, women are bid for, and obedience is expected, Shakespeare’s comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, has long-provoked considerable controversy with its misogynistic proclivities. 

Cardiff University Drama Society’s adaptation is no exception but uniquely situates the shrewish protagonist, Katherina, in the 1960s, a period when separate male and female spaces were still commonly defined but when feminist tremors also surfaced. 

The Taming of the Shrew is believed to have been written by William Shakespeare between 1590 and 1592 and first performed in 1592, when it took the form of a bawdy comedy. It has taken many forms since, including in the humorous 1967 film adaptation with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Whilst no version can hide the story’s inherent misogyny, many adaptations focus primarily on the story’s comic elements. However, Cardiff University Drama Society, which won ‘Best Society’ at Cardiff University Society Awards in 2012, has boldly opted to focus on Katherina’s psychological torment at the hands of Petruchio by contrasting comic moments with far darker ones, in what is a triumph for the Society. 

The City of Padua from Shakespeare’s original version is cleverly represented in this take as Padua Ltd, your typical 1960s office environment where women are largely excluded. As this representation eloquently and notably demonstrates by the silenced and abused female secretary, the few roles women can perform are all subordinate. The office is run by Katherina’s overworked father, Baptista, played by Oliver Canning, who perhaps produced the most inspired, natural and veteran performance of the night. 

Adding to Baptista’s pressures is the constant barrage of marriage requests coming at him from various cocky and besotted suitors for his younger, more affable daughter, Bianca. However, Baptista refuses to permit Bianca to marry until his sharp-tongued, often unpalatable (but very beautiful) Katherina is wedded. This leads to Bianca’s suitors enlisting the help of travelling salesman Petruchio, who they believe is the only one who can tame Katherina.   

Katherina and Petruchio were played superbly by Catherine Douglas and Rob England, respectively. England was the greasy, manipulative sleaze that you would expect from his despicable character, but he talked, jested and waltzed around so freely that he stole the show. His character was the brainy, funny, manipulative one. He was the leader, the joker, the instigator. He wooed Baptista and neutralised Katherina, leaving her alone, her freedom inhibited and her personality unquenched. England was so wonderful that you loved to hate him, but he pulled his part off in such a way that one never lost sight of his harrowing impact on his bride, Katherina. For this reason, you hated to love him. For me, creating this perplexing and uncomfortable contradiction was a sign of England’s and the crew’s success. 

Katherina was sold twice by her father, as this adaptation demonstrated profoundly. Firstly, he sold her life to Petruchio for the price of a good dowry. Secondly, he sold her out of all his support, by leaving her to fend against Petruchio alone and even by joining the other men in mocking her as she resisted and then gave in to Petruchio’s taming. Douglas somehow managed to capture years of weariness on her young face. Even in her silence, one could see her torment and story continuing behind her eyes.

Before her marriage, Katherina was described as sharp-tongued, and there were many amusing and many upsetting scenes as she clashed with Petruchio. Sadly, she was no match for the full weight of patriarchal society, which came crashing down on top of her. However, Douglas created a character that was well-revered and lovable, for she spoke so strongly, freely and truthfully, even if she was beaten for it. She delivered an incredible, emblazoned speech at the end. Its content is a Shakespeare masterpiece, its delivery was Douglas’ masterpiece. To the audience’s eyes, she had the beauty of a pure, righteous, strong lady. To Petruchio’s eyes, she had the beauty only of a sold subordinate. 

They said in their programme that they were trying to make their adaptation a less humorous and a more serious one. Although I thought they balanced these elements well, I don’t think they met their own objectives as there were few cast-iron serious moments to contradict with the many solely comic scenes. As before, a triumph of the show was how one never lost sight of the seriousness of the situation in which Katherina found herself, but there were few moments that shook the boat, as it were, which may leave the producers disappointed when reflecting on their aims. I feel there was scope to provide such moments for the audience to take away with them, even if all the comic moments, which were well-received, were left in. 

The supporting cast was also littered with star performances. The Best Supporting Actress Award must go to Mima Walker, who played the thoroughly refreshing and jovial Grumio, a servant of Petruchio’s. Grumio was yet another woman who did everything Petruchio said, but in contrast to Katherina’s begrudging acceptance, Grumio was so willing. She was so willing, in fact, that she was entirely amusing. She’d jump even before he’d ask her to jump. She’d fist-pump even before he’d make his threats to the others. She’d be in such a hurry to please her master that she’d trip over pure air. She was so ‘go happy, go lucky’ that she’d be almost unreal or intolerable in our world. She was the office equivalent of Hermione Granger in the classroom or the new recruit who’d lick their boss’ shoes until their probation period was over. She had easy, oozing, natural talent, and I can see her playing other significant parts in the future, such as Annie or the Artful Dodger

Horentsio was played by Lawrence Dixon, who was clearly born to play a comic role on stage. His thoroughly hilarious side story fondly reminded me of lovable, hapless characters, such as Scrat from Ice Age. He was omnipresent and always making a quip, which worked perfectly. Dixon took to it easily, and reminded me of a jovial post-race jockey or of a court jester in Shakepeare’s own time. 

I thought Joe Roberts played old Gremio excellently well. He had the crooked back and gruff voice just right, but I don’t know what his character brought to the show that was significant. Gremio, like Tranio and Horentsio, lightened up the mood, but a bit more banter and a few more funny lines or even pearls of wisdom from his greying grey matter would have added to his contribution. I believe that more of the same is all that would be in order to develop a really special character. One would hope for the sort of backchat seen in the Pythons or the Ronnies.

In general, it was incredibly impressive how the cast remembered such long passages of old English dialogue without stuttering or mumbling. At first, I was unsure if the Old English would work in the 1960s setting, but the combination of the two eras helped keep the story’s raw message at its best and highlighted how the same theme, misogyny, is and has been an issue for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Sometimes, however, I felt that the speech was unintelligible. Whilst this was often down to the simple fact that Old English can be hard to follow, it was also partly because of a lack of emphasis and tone variety in places. A couple of the actors spoke as if they were part of a poetry recital or as if they were just going through the motions, rather than actually living in the play’s world. Whilst this will be a hard point to improve on because Shakespeare seems so inherently poetic to us modern people, the cast can look towards the examples of England and Canning to follow, as they managed to put their own stamps on their characters, even through the misty haze and muddling maze of Shakespeare.

Finally, I must talk about the set. Understandably, the student group had limited resources with which to produce staging, so they went for the simple vibe. However, I feel their take on ‘simple’ was too simple! They only had a few white boards with one green stripe on to act as background. Although they re-arranged the boards cleverly to indicate a new scene, it was still difficult sometimes to see where we were because it all looked the same; it all looked bland. Even adding simple paintings to the walls would have dramatically improved the set. However, there were some excellent set inclusions: the lift was genius and hilarious, the typewriter added an air of authenticity, and the stage crew being donned in cleaners’ aprons was very clever. The inclusion of old music during the change-overs took the attention and pressure off the stage crew and let us all relax in the music of the time, which helped us all immerse in the story. The lighting was good, but it was sometimes a bit too bright and dazzled off the cast’s faces, when instead it could have sat more comfortably on them. In general, the YMCA is a great venue for impressive amateur performances like this, and it is always wonderful to find hidden pockets of talent, like I saw last night. 

The show continues until Saturday, February 15th. Tickets are available here or on the door. 

Rating: 7/10


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