I first saw Propeller in November 2006, when they contributed their Taming of the Shrew to the RSC’s Complete Works Festival in Stratford, which made this the most delayed return visit to a production I’ve ever had. Almost seven years later and with an almost entirely new cast, Propeller’s provocative and disquieting Shrew had lost none of its power – perhaps due to director Edward Hall now being supported by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, the original production’s Petruchio.
The proscenium arch of the Theatre Royal was less kind to the production’s anarchic atmosphere than the (much-missed) thrust of the Courtyard, but the playful chaos of the original was still on display. Late for his own wedding, Vince Leigh’s Christopher Sly stumbled into besuited guests, knocked over chairs and finally passed out in the aisle, prompting his veiled bride to run out in sobs. The bride’s father thus set up the ‘lord’ charade as a form of revenge; the culmination, if you will, of a stag do that Sly had clearly not quite finished. The purpose of the Induction here was to set up the play-within-a-play, performed by a group of ragtag actors in costumes ranging from an Italian mafia don (Chris Myles’s Baptista) to Inspector Clouseau (the Pedant) to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name (Liam O’Brien’s Tranio when disguised as Lucentio). Drawn from the dressing-up box, this Shrew was always, importantly, just play.
The play-within-a-play started with Sly watching as Tranio and Finn Hanlon’s Lucentio read from scripts, positioning themselves deliberately as actors. After the first batch of action, Sly found himself alone on stage, the play having apparently ended. The cast then returned, inviting him to join and giving him a script. He began by reading from it, adopting a mock-heroic tone to the applause of the ‘real’ actors. Then, making a visible shift, he fell into the role, becoming Petruchio and throwing his script away. The point here, that this was a story being re-told, was never lost, and O’Brien for one kept up a deliberate routine throughout of puncturing every word with a gesture, a style shared by Ben Allen’s petulant Biondello who earned a spontaneous round of applause for his breakneck delivery of the description of Petruchio and horse, each aspect of the description accompanied by exaggerated physical gesture. The strength of this approach is that all of the characters were distinctly individuated, with their own tics and mannerisms, but at the same time caricatured, creating a broad canvas against which the company could perform their more nuanced work.
This swaggering Petruchio had no depth or hidden kindness. His masculine swagger suggested this was Sly’s wish-fulfilment fantasy, a controlled and committed wooer who had the ongoing support of his male companions. Even in the early scenes, it became apparent that the danger lay here, as the rest of the men fell into line with Petruchio, acquiescing immediately as he explained that Kate was only pretending to hate him and ignoring Kate’s outraged cries to the contrary.
Bravely, for any production that wishes to use the play as a statement against domestic violence, Dan Wheeler’s Kate pulled no punches in realising an aggressive and capable ‘shrew’. In her opening scene she punched Hortensio hard, left Gremio sprawled on the floor with her heel on his crotch, and poked another suitor in the eye. She slammed a window hatch twice into Bianca’s face and slapped Petruchio hard and repeatedly, even after his promise to strike her back. Yet Wheeler’s Kate took no pleasure in the violence. Throughout, the strain and frustration in her voice responded to the consistent ignoring of her pleas and needs by her father, and as the play went on it became increasingly clear that, despite her vocal presence, this woman was being denied a voice at every turn.
The comic backdrop was thus essential to setting up the fast, easy discourse against which Kate was being silenced. Interestingly, Gary Shelford’s Hortensio, in smoking jacket and with a backing troupe of jazz vocalists, emerged as a lead, the closest thing to an audience-identification figure amid the chaos, even when wearing a smashed guitar about his neck. The schoolroom scene was particularly amusing, with Hortensio turning his gamut into a full-fledged jazz number accompanied by the onstage band, but the lively ensemble presence throughout the production ensured a party atmosphere (only accentuated by the traditional half-time gig, this time involving mash-ups of ’70s classics). Everyone got their moment to shine, from John Dougall’s randy old man Gremio to Christopher Heyward’s gloriously camp Tailor to Arthur Wilson’s shrill, hypocritical Bianca, who stuck fingers up at Kate behind her father’s back and romped behind a cupboard with Lucentio.
The uproarious wedding scene, featuring Petruchio in thong and Benjamin O’Mahony’s Grumio as an embarrassed cowboy with no back to his jeans, deliberately reprised Sly’s own wedding. Rather than descending into violence, though, Petruchio began the serious business of taming with a laid-back cruelty that looked tired, almost bored. This tactic became more obvious as the play went on, Kate’s resistance being treated with deep sighs and the threat of starting all over again. Particularly when travelling back to Padua, this threat was accompanied by Hortensio and Grumio both sharing accusing stares at Kate for disrupting progress, the male community bonding in the shaming of Kate.
At Petruchio’s house, the group of lackeys presided over by Joseph Chance’s Curtis bore the main brunt of Petruchio’s renewed violence, he scattering their covered dishes, punching them to the ground and sending them running. The absolute control he had over his household brooked no argument, and he had merely to click his fingers for a servant to run forward to receive his punishment. Kate, wearing a muddied wedding dress, starving and exhausted, spent much of the second half curled up on the floor, occasionally rising to exert herself but continually cowed by Petruchio’s extreme bursts of violence and finally learning not to draw attention to herself. It was in this that this Shrew differentiated itself from usual models. The violence offered directly to Kate was restrictive rather than causing physical injury – Petruchio hurt others, but constrained Kate from being able to harm. He held her from behind, wrapped his arms around her, blocked her from the plate of food that Hortensio happily devoured, systematically deprived her of agency.
By the scene in which Vincentio was met on the road, the game had been lost. Where the sun/moon instruction is often interpreted as the moment in which Kate clues in to the game, here every change on Petruchio’s part was met with tears by an exhausted Kate, who blurted out the correct answers and endured the shame of ‘misrecognising’ Vincentio. By now broken, she kept her distance from Petruchio on the streets of Padua as the subplot concluded, and when left alone she only tentatively agreed to kiss Petruchio. Coming close to him, he held out a hand at waist level, causing her to kneel to him and kiss his hand, upon which he pointed out to the audience how civil this relationship was.
A horrific celebration scene followed, as the men roared loudly and drunkenly at one another and wagered on their wives’ affections. Kate was nervous throughout, glancing over her shoulders as she went to fetch the other wives, as if scared she was doing something wrong. On being asked to deliver her speech, she spoke initially without inflection, building in feeling as she explained ‘happiness’ from a place of deep despair. To consolidate the relationship, she knelt on the floor, turned her face away and put out her hand. In silence, Petruchio slowly walked up to her, then raised his foot suddenly as if to stamp on it, causing a loud cry from both on-stage and off-stage audience. ‘Now there’s a wench’ was triumphant but also cold, definitive, a statement of how this should be.
Throughout, Leigh had used his opportunities to invite the audience to offer a better solution bravely, waiting for the audience to contribute (I distinctly heard what I think was a ‘Fuck off’ from somewhere in the circle, though couldn’t be entirely sure) and putting the work of critique back on the audience. If this wasn’t clear enough, the disgusted reactions of the rest of the company – now returned to being players – as they packed up their props and left was. As Sly, in a brief return to the framing device, celebrated the fact that he had learned how he would return to his wife, a door at the side of the stage crashed open and Wheeler appeared – now neither entirely Kate nor merely the Player. ‘Have you learned nothing? This was but a play’. The message was, I suspect, not just for Sly but for those critics who claim that an all-male company has no right to perform a play such as Shrew, or those that think Shrew has no place on the twenty-first century stage. While the whole ensemble were extraordinary, the beautifully played and terrifying dynamic between Leigh and Wheeler went to a place deeper than any simple anti-sexism message – it exposed the repressive mechanisms by which abused women are not only oppressed, but taught to accept oppression. I’d suggest that this production makes explicit that we need to recognise and to abhor these behaviours, and acknowledge that they emerge within a culture where these issues are laughed at and then ignored.
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On a personal note, this was for me a fascinating production, as the first BSL-interpreted production since I’ve been learning the language myself. The work of the interpreter was extraordinary throughout, responding intuitively to the production’s fast-moving dynamics, offering an expressive variation that retained the irony and comic beats of Propeller, and also fascinatingly drew attention to the deliberately pointed gestural performance of several of the actors. She even joined the cast to sign the interval gig. Wonderful.