A festival of double entendres

Toby Frow's Taming of the Shrew hits the spot.

The Taming of the Shrew is not, perhaps, the easiest of Shakespeare’s comedies to love. Rather like dealing with a friend’s ill-favoured and difficult child, one struggles to respond with the unstinting delight that one knows is expected.

Toby Frow’s production at the Globe goes a long way towards jollying us out of our 21st-century humours, however, through the medium of horseplay and general hijinks. We’re invited to leapfrog over the bitter lesson at the heart of the play, the stone in the peach - namely, that a woman must be broken into submission through starvation, sleep deprivation and other torture methods (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”).

Katharina the “shrew” is at once the men’s quarry and their soon-to-be domesticated pet, a “household Kate”. She’s a beast of burden (to be boarded, and to bear children) and a tamed bird. Oh, and a dog. Never has a woman been saddled with so many animal analogues as our Kate. The project is clear: this wildcat must be tamed. For her own good, you understand.

Such is the production’s success, though, that the house actually cheers her eventual submission, responding with some enthusiasm to shrew-tamer Petruchio’s approving “why, there’s a wench!” Frow’s prevailing mood of hilarity helps, and he has taken the decision to stick to seventeenth century dress code so that we might feel distanced, in an “another country” sort of way. Though bit of hose and damask is not necessarily going to neutralize lines like “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign...” or indeed Kate’s sisterly advice to the women: “place your hands below your husband's foot”.

Nor does the framing device - in this case a boozy, chavvy Engerland supporter in crackling polyester, who takes a casual pee on stage - serve to truly remove us from the make-believe of the play. This deluded lordling melts away, to re-emerge as Petruchio. The parallels are explicit: they are buddied up in their delusions, but it hardly removes the sting from Petruchio’s brutal treatment of Katharina.

Still it’s really hard to dislike Toby Frow’s gag-filled bawdy. Samantha Spiro is a spitting firecracker as the eponymous shrew. She breaks down doors, punches groundlings and beats the crap out of her sister, each act of violence accompanied by the scream of a banshee. She’s a pocket, pungent contrast to her sibling (Sarah MacRae), the willowy, insufferable Bianca. Simon Paisley-Day, as Petruchio, is wildly unbuttoned. He rocks up to his nuptials wearing nothing but a jumbo codpiece and extravagantly ill-matched boots.

The whole show is a festival of double entendres and the cast juice words like “instruments” and “fingering” for all they are worth. It’s also not above some breezy anachronisms - "Johnny B. Goode" is strummed on the lute - and the odd textual extra (off-stage noises of Katharina seemingly being brought to the brink of orgasm, for example). It plays fast-and-loose with the text: whole speeches are gunned through at top speed for comic effect; when Petruchio makes various classical references, to Socrates’ Xanthe and the like, the joke is not that we know these allusions, but that we don’t.

In this show, we’re in it for the lols.

Whether it’s a piece of harmless folklore, some sportive roleplay (after all, everyone else in the play is faking it) or a touch of the Stockholm syndrome, Spiro’s venomous Katharina is apparently beaten into a missus from Stepford, her final speech seemingly unlimned by irony. Her percussive shrieks deepen and sweeten to rich cello tones as she hymns the surrendered wife. Kate is declawed; the wildcat turns pussycat.

And yet the crowd roars. Maybe we Elizabethans are not as New as we’d like to think.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1973 film of The Taming of the Shrew (Getty Images)
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times