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.