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Petruchio (Michael Cummings) and Katherina (Elly Tipping) get physical with each other (photo: Peter Mould).

Farce with attitude: Bowler Crab tames shrew

Victoria Kingham finds plenty to write home about in Bowler Crab theatre company’s production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Bowler Crab’s presentation of The Taming of the Shrew, had it been outdoors in Regent’s Park, say, would have been shouted to the rafters. As it was, unless you looked diligently, you might not know it was there. It was in the meadow of a beautiful old farmhouse, Half House Farm at Three Oaks, staged in a position where the trees at the back not only provided the platform with a picturesque frame, but also served as part of the plot – in default of any convenient furniture the characters occasionally concealed themselves among the pines. The audience sat on bales of hay.

The plays of William Shakespeare act as a kind of gateway to literary eternity, to folk tales and stories told since the dawn of civilisation. They also reflect successive performance techniques from the Mummers’ plays of the twelfth century, through theatres in the round, elaborate proscenium buildings, and back again to today’s Street Theatre and the many small touring companies, like Bowler Crab.

This very intelligent production reflected all the above. The lack of stage direction in the original allows for an infinite variety of interpretation, and the story, piecemeal though it is, like other traditional narratives maintains contemporary relevance to the general human condition.

While bordering on farce, very physical, and in places almost Punch-and-Judy, pantomime with prat-falls, the play still carries a significant message. Not, obviously, the overt one: mistreat your bride, tire her, drag her through hardship, sleep-deprive and starve her into submission, then live happily ever after.  Producer Stephen John intentionally retained the play-within-a-play structure (often left out) because, he writes, the framing device has “a drastic impact on the treatment of the tone, style and motivation behind Katherina and Petruchio’s story.”

And though cleverly played for maximum humour, the play pointed ironically at the disparity between male expectations of women and women’s still-diminished possibility of living a life truly free of other people’s expectations of them.

A major virtue of this production was that it achieved that profound fictional accomplishment: suspension of disbelief and involvement in the action while knowing perfectly well all the while that what you’re watching is a story. The best opera productions do it; good films do it (Wes Anderson, for instance, is a master of this); the best modern paintings (what do you think when you see Lucien Freud’s version of a ‘Pope’, for example?) do it; novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman too.

Clearly, none of the above could be achieved without considerable acting talent. The nine cast members never faltered, despite the cold wind and occasional rain. Elly Tipping’s Katherina was simultaneously funny and clever, beautifully bad-tempered, only mockingly submissive. Michael Cummings as Petruchio was her equal; together they were beautiful in the famous act where they exchange one-liners in a gorgeous excess of stichomythia. Katherina’s concluding speech was impassioned, perfect.

Beshrew me, though, if I don’t mention the wondrous costumes. They were meaningfully absurd; Bianca had a pink traditional tutu, ballet shoes, pink tights, but Kate (the Shrew) had a black Goth one, which she wore with Doc Martins, wide-gauge fishnet tights and elbow-gloves, a studded collar, and scary eye make-up which could be interpreted as modern Goth, but also looked like a traditional comedy mask.

Curtis appeared in a traditional clown’s costume and the disguises of the two ‘music masters’ (daft false beards) and the ‘wife’ of Christopher Sly (badly fitted, visible false bosom) were appalling, and an obvious chest enhancer. Petruchio’s late appearance at his wedding in unsuitable clothing is never explained in the play but we assume that it asserts his paid-up rights as a prospective bridegroom; this Petruchio was clothed in a white crimplene dress (C&A, 1960s), and green cowboy boots. Why not, indeed?

Everyone should see this: Shakespeare at his best and most accessible, only available for a limited period, thoughtfully produced and beautifully acted.

There are performances throughout the rest of July and August, Broad Oak, Hastings, Bexhill and Rye. See details here.

 

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Posted 12:14 Tuesday, Jul 9, 2024 In: Performance

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