Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is easily subject to criticism about its misogyny and therefore its relevance in contemporary society. Montague Basement’s production, however, is a fresh interpretation that revitalises its outdated predecessor, forefronting victims of domestic violence and transporting Shakespeare’s comedic play to a dramatic platform.
Staged initially on a blank stage with black curtains draped on the wings, director Caitlin West has set the play in the present day. Her direction intelligently embraces the new setting, enhancing the wit inherent in the text, while also dramatising and acknowledging its problems. Men are symbolically dressed in white to warn of the farcical image of purity, and women are immediately connected yet paradoxically distanced from them, as Bianca (Jane Watt) attempts to lure Lucentio (Tel Benjamin) from the second level of the stage. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come; that while relationships will be forged, the women in the play will have a markedly different experience to their male counterparts.
When Katherine (Hannah Cox) meets Petruchio (Robert Boddington), sparks and passion immediately fly, but their banter and sexual tension is met by a violent undertone that manifests dangerously later in the play. But these hints are never obvious – consider Petruchio on his wedding day, consuming alcohol behind-the-scenes (a clever trick of Michaela Savina’s two-level set design) while the forefront boasts Katherine and Bianca excitedly preparing for the wedding, dressing the stage with enchanting decorations and cute flowers.
Petruchio is not presented as anything dangerous; rather, he’s a portrait of endearing male insecurity, even when he decides to leave Katherine at the altar. It is even forgiving and tender when they reconcile, and Katherine’s compassionate understanding is frighteningly relatable, especially as we follow the trajectory of what would have been the original play’s second act, which now flows straight from the wedding into the domestic confines of Katherine and Petruchio’s marriage.
The shortened run time play of one hour and fifteen minutes feels concise and straight to the point; it eliminates secondary characters like Hortensio who detract from the primary narrative, and benefits greatly from a more nuanced understanding of Katherine’s character and inserts of modern language from David Garrick’s text Catharine and Petruchio. This allows for West to elevate both sisters Katherine and Bianca to the narrative importance of their respective romantic partners, Petruchio and Lucentio, who have always been at the forefront of the text.
Cox is an impressive Katherine; she charts a tragic transformation that sees her character unravel into a submissive and obeying wife. She is literally stripped to her undergarments to be objectified and dominated by Petruchio. In this production, it is no longer a comedy to see Katherine “tamed” by Petruchio: it is a reign of tyranny that tethers an outspoken and passionate individual, following her shocking evolution into a compliant and dependent human being. West keeps this transformation moving with insight and sympathy, and Cox’s performance under her direction is a clear commentary on our culture of domestic violence.
The intertwining storyline between Bianca and Lucentio juxtaposes against the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio; this is a playfully clandestine courtship. But it is the final moment of this production that hits hardest: Bianca shell-shocked and alone in her witnessing of her sister’s submission. As she is left by herself centre-stage, West signals Bianca’s empty cry for her sister against the happiness of the multi-coloured vibrancy of her love with Lucentio, and she questions the ambiguity of the new world ahead.
Leaving questions open and words unspoken, West’s The Taming of the Shrew nevertheless speaks volumes as a modern and important unveiling of the social issues that a contemporary audience faces.