'Taming of the Shrew' and 'Twelfth Night' review or 'A crushing bride!'

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Twelfth Night’
Hampstead Theatre, 4th July 2013
Written for Ham & High



No one likes ‘Taming of the Shrew’. It is a difficult play, which reeks of misogyny no matter which way you twist it. But this unflinching production by Propeller, first performed in 2006, is brutally entertaining. It is bullish yet sensitive, playful but deeply intelligent. 

The Christopher Sly subplot, which frames the play, has been transformed into a bed-time story. Sly (Vince Leigh) watches his friends perform ‘Shrew’ and, after some encouragement, takes on the role of Petruchio. When Leigh delivers his first line as the preening Petruchio, the company eagerly applauds him. The idea of Petruchio as performer, keen for approval, is cleverly established.

Leigh’s Petruchio is initially too vain - all floppy hair and smug smiles - to be taken seriously. But as he settles into his performance, Petruchio’s menace grows. The first encounter between Petruchio and the bleach haired, black booted Katherine (Dan Wheeler) crackles with punches yet un-thrown.

The show initially feels like an elaborate prank. Theme tunes accompany entrances and exits, actors don’t walk if they can tumble and madcap costumes verge on absurd. But the tone gradually sours. Servants cower at Petruchio’s voice and a sense of bewilderment and regret hovers, nervously, in the air.

Dan Wheeler is an exceptionally vulnerable Katherine – a softness all the more touching, since the role is played by a man. When Kate kneels at Petruchio’s feet, we are watching not a bold woman cowed but a sensitive soul crushed. As Petruchio stands, triumphant, the play text is snatched from him. His cruel performance has gone too far.  

Unfortunately, the actors in ‘Twelfth Night’ – the second play in this enthralling double bill – don’t take their performances far enough. Always one to eschew the obvious, Edward Hall has drowned his ‘Twelfth Night’ in tears and shrouded it in grey. This is a production that refuses colour.

The cast wear black suits, musical flourishes tingle with regret and even the silliest scenes are pricked with sorrow. Propeller, such natural comedians and tricksters, have cut themselves short with this sombre approach.

With the memory of Petruchio still lingering, Vince Leigh’s Sir Toby Belch is a cruel bully rather than a lovable rogue. Feste (Liam O'Brien) slopes about like a reformed alcoholic and Chris Myle’s Malvolio is curiously restrained. It’s a brave choice but it sucks the life right out of the central gulling scene.  

Only Gary Shelford, as the wily Maria, retains Propeller’s trademark sparkle. Seduced by the music, Maria cannot help but tap dance as she tries to hold the peace. It’s a twinkle-toed touch from this fine company, who have always known how to make Shakespeare sing.

There'll be no more cakes and ale for this Malvolio. 


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