The Taming of the Shrew: Guildford Shakespeare Company
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: GUILDFORD
- Venue: The University of Law - Guildford
- Director: Charlotte Conquest
- Producer: Guildford Shakespeare Company
The Taming of the Shrew is a cruel piece and if a director ignores this the result can be saccharine. In a promenade version for the Guildford Shakespeare Company, Charlotte Conquest injects tenderness without sacrificing the hard edges.
Conquest serves up a version that is resourceful and playfully Brechtian but with enough confrontation to leave the audience pondering the nature of the sexual contract. The location for the production is the grounds of a law school outside Guildford with one of the buildings so artfully presented as a pub that I was fooled for much of the first act.
Conquest and her colleagues opt to retain the Christopher Sly interlude. Often this is done clumsily or reluctantly but here it becomes not just a framing device but a springboard into the main action featuring (amid a competitive field) some of the best gags of the day.
The treatment richly deserves a revival but since this is a company that teems with ideas it’s likely that next year’s programme will be new so spoiler warnings are unnecessary. Many of the cast members arrive out of character in the company’s liveried van with co-founder Matt Pinches announcing to the performers in the frame play that his colleagues are travelling players. It’s what Joan Littlewood used to call heightened or ‘Brechty-Brecht’ and never once do we lose sight of the fact that we are at a theatrical spectacle as the actors retain a witty detached perspective on what they are doing.As the Sly-Petruchio character, the wonderful Owen Oakeshott is even presented with a leaflet advertising the play. “Well! We’ll see it then.” A fulcrum of this gorgeous treatment of a difficult text is his teetering between two identities: “Am I a lord and have I such a lady or do I dream?”
Deft handling of the numerous smutty puns was not enough for me. Buying into the whole conceit, I took it on faith that all the characters were so linguistically alive that their off-stage banter would sparkle too and I wanted to creep behind the set (a 1950s hotel) to eavesdrop. Even the unseen comedy resonates with the capacity audience as textbooks come hurtling out of the fir trees and we realise that as Katherina, the superb Sarah Gobran, is not taking well to her lessons.
Not once does Gobran resort to the caterwauling that must be such a tempting approach for a lesser actress in this role. Instead, she draws on exceptional technique to establish a tension between the will to dominate and at the same time submit. She plays up the vulnerability to an unusual degree but it's a valid approach and is executed with psychological credibility.
At times (notably when indicating with the merest facial expression that this is a man who may conquer her) Gobran acts almost cinematically which is quite a feat outdoors. Oakeshott’s performance is equally subtle. There is absolutely no distance between the performer and the dialogue though I should have liked a few more hints that this is a man who has been pole-axed by the recent loss of his father.
With five minutes left, Gobran suddenly disappeared and I feared she would miss the curtain call. Finally, the penny dropped in what I fear might have been the slowest jukebox in the audience. Keener observers would have been several steps ahead of me. Gobran now had a massive costume change in order to reappear as a serving wench. An already memorable production was about to play its trump card by ignoring the First Folio and using the quarto version in which we return to the tavern and Petruchio emerges from his dream into the character of Sly. I left feeling elated, a little husky and saddened that this was the final night so I could not go again.