Theatre in Wales

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Deeply entertaining, very moving and supremely satisfying.

The Taming of the Shrew

Watermill/Propeller/Old Vic , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November-30-06
The Taming of the Shrew by Watermill/Propeller/Old Vic The Watermill Theatre (West Berkshire Playhouse) has a reputation for being one of, if not the finest showcasing theatre off-West End. Some of the most popular productions of recent years in the centre of London started off life there. And its association with Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company Propeller has only reinforced this notion. So it was with high expectations that I went to see Propeller’s touring production of Shakespeare’s quite tricky comedy of gender and subjugation ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Hall and his text editor Roger Warren very sympathetically adapted the text, opting for the telling which more firmly places the twin tales of Petruchio’s violent taming of the shrewish Katherine and the plight of her younger sister Bianca in the face of her suitors in the context of the presentation of a dreamlike play of the stories to drunkard Christopher Sly. Indeed, the text also included a number of, shall we say, non-Shakespearean lines which perfectly complemented the standard text. All of this occurred on the extremely multi-purpose set designed by Michael Pavelka, which consisted of a number of movable wardrobe-style boxes with two-way mirrors and false backs. These doubled as cupboards, doorways, windows. The only one of these ‘wardrobes’ which did not move was that which housed a mocked-up pipe organ, consisting of a series of organ pipes above a digital keyboard. Above all this was a vast grey chandelier with multi coloured glowing lights. Though the set was primarily a slightly dirty grey which gave a slightly drab feel to it when viewed in pre-show, this was by no means a problem. In fact, as brightly costumed actors took to the stage and the lights of the chandelier were utilised, the whole stage was a blaze of colour which occasionally bordered on the dazzling and was always just on the borders of (extremely endearing) camp.

The pre-show set up extended beyond the auditorium. The cast mingled, dressed as before a wedding, with audience members in the bar beforehand. This show started virtually as soon as one arrived in the foyer, and carried one with it throughout.

Christopher Sly, who doubled as Petruchio, was played with attractive thuggery by Dugald Bruce Lockhart, who became his characters effortlessly for the moment he arrived onstage, which was actually before the audience went into the auditorium. His interesting costumes complemented his characters perfectly. Likewise, Simon Scardifield’s Katherine. Scardifield absolutely encompassed the various characters bound up in the one person of Kate the Curst. A very talented physical actor, this was employed to great effect, along with some very effective comic timing, which gradually dissipates to a wonderfully judged, calculated, almost two-facedly automaton-like Kate towards the end. Also, Jon Trenchard’s portrayal of her allegedly more modest sister Bianca was very beautifully nuanced, and often extremely funny.

Other noteworthy performances came from the mellifluously-voiced Bob Barrett as Kate’s father Baptista, not to mention Jason Baughan’s dual roles as Grumio and a Pedant. Baughan is an inherently comic actor, and never failed to carry the audience with him when he was the focus of attention. Tony Bell’s Tranio, Jack Tarlton’s Hortensio and Dominic Tighe’s Tailor and Widow are also worthy of note. Though Tranio and Hortensio are more prominent, with actorly talent sufficient to merit it, Tighe’s portrayal of his two more minor characters stood out for all the right reasons.

Of course, the entire company, which also housed some more prominent roles, had many parts to play in what is so high-energy a production that one can only imagine they are exhausted when they take their final bow. The ensemble feel of this production was palpable throughout, but particularly in the very brave use of a lot of live sound, which never failed to impress. The ‘organ’ was tuneable to a variety of different instruments, and was very skilfully played by several of the company, while others sang, played trombones, a flute, guitars, bass, triangle, castanets among others. I think I may even have seen a passing flugelhorn. Very little in the way of recorded sound was used, if any. The sound levels, which I believe were overseen by the Arts Centre’s own technician, were well-set and balanced.

Lighting was also extremely well deployed. A multi-hued lightscape gave a beautiful colour-coding to the layers and emotions of the play.

The all-male nature of the production mattered not a whit to anyone as, though those who undertook female roles were not always extremely feminine in appearance (at least, I think it’s safe to imagine that Katherine was not quite as hirsute in Shakespeare’s mind), but their performances, deportment and delivery were always arresting and convincing.

This production is, above all else, deeply entertaining, very moving and supremely satisfying. Major set-pieces and minor moments alike were handled with equal energy and focus, and there really was not a bad moment throughout the entire performance.

Still, as with any review, do not feel obliged to take my word for it. With the run continuing until Saturday, December 2nd, there’s more than enough time to make up your own mind. But I would be surprised if you were disappointed.

Reviewed by: Paddy Cooper

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