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)
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear