By Danielle Farrow
Cygnet Theatre students present their own, student-directed, production of this Shakespeare play, focusing on domestic abuse and how this is not restricted to violence against women.
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew involves a marriage where Petruchio sets about re-structuring his out-of-control bride’s behaviour and then proves to those who held her in very low esteem that she has been, to their world, redeemed. Played for laughs and romance, the taming is something of a game and there can be a relationship built between Petruchio and his Kate that is warm and has the two in collusion by the end. Played more politically, making Petruchio’s behaviour seem his usual manner (which requires textual cuts) and focusing on his methods as domestic abuse, the play becomes far darker. Cygnet has chosen the latter approach, with the added twist of swapping the gender of all the characters except Petruchio’s servants.
Set in a world of competitive businesswomen, happily groping the office boy, this production focuses on harassment issues and abuse by those in power. The mother of Petruchio occasionally shows care for her son, but part of the weakness here is that Kate (names have not been changed, only gender) never really exhibits the extreme behaviour that he is renowned for, making the story incredibly one-sided, rather than a match between antagonists that have something to clash over. Petruchio is overly-played throughout as a vicious bitch, with rarely any sign that she may even be capable of seeming an attractive person (which would have made domestic abuse more powerful).
The setting is clear, with an office notice board turning to provide a modern art background when not hidden by curtains. The modern business clothing works, though is clumsily accessorised in some cases. The cast achieve a few strong performances and there are highlights: Kate is believable as a person, if not as Shakespeare’s creation; Biondello is both real and very amusing; the wooing of Kate’s brother by various suitors is handled with confidence and flirtations that amuse. There is also anticipation of lines by a lead that goes against sense, and late cues from another that show how little is going on for that actor.
The concept of this production is somewhat forced onto the text at times (confusingly so in the teasing of a character through description that is apt and shouldn’t be – license could have been taken with text here) and though a look exchanged between Kate and one of Petruchio’s servants held great depth and meaning, there were only a few such moments in which the concept found a true footing in performance. Intriguing ideas are heavily presented and the company could have benefited from more subtlety – not because Shakespeare’s play is subtle, but because the approach they have chosen requires it to be.
Cygnet’s Taming of the Shrew is an interesting production, with some individually strong performers and moments of light entertainment. It can stimulate thought about gender, bullying and domestic abuse, but it doesn’t quite gel in its presentation and doesn‘t actually provide a shrew to be tamed – possibly a point worth exploring, but not fleshed out here.