Monday, 20 February 2012

Sheer brilliance at Stratford

The only downer on it all was that I couldn't watch the climactic speech, because I knew beyond doubt that it would make me blub like a baby, if I saw as well as heard it. Not that it was sad, you understand, just fantastically packed with emotion. But we've just had one of those weekends to savour. We had our good friends, Anthony and Ruth, with us for a couple of nights,  sandwiching a visit to Stratford topped with a meal at Le Brasserie Blanc in Oxford. They are entirely positive people, whose company we always enjoy.

Anyway, this time, I'd chosen The Taming of the Shrew, about which I've always been ambivalent, reinforced by memories of the Burton/Taylor film, directed by Zeffirelli in the 60s, which I recall as a story of a man bullying a woman into submission. I might have missed the subtleties of direction, but it remained a problem in my mind. Jane had also read the play and not found the scenes when Petruchio "tames" Kate much to her taste. One thing this production potentially had in its favour was that its director was a woman, Lucy Bailey. I couldn't see her creating a celebration of misogyny. It would be interesting if she made it into a feminist tract. However, she did neither. Remarkably, she illuminated Shakespeare's text in a way that rang entirely true, and produced a play full of life, humour and intensity, and in which, at the end, you felt both Kate and Petruchio were the winners and the rest, to put it bluntly, were "Losers". In the opinion of our party it was the best Stratford production we'd seen together yet. It was very funny, very clever and very moving.

Faithfulness to the text was key. Unlike the Zeffirelli film, this production started with the alcoholic tinker, Christopher Sly, being "ejected from a country pub and carried to a Lord's house, where he slips into a drunken coma. He awakes and finds himself in the world of Padua and its inhabitants, caught in a dream he seems unable to escape from...." So the programme note explains the beginning. The dream, if it is one, includes Sly being dressed and treated as a lord himself, and then settling to watch the play. The set was extraordinarily simple and clever, looking like a huge double-bed with a house façade behind curtains at the head. Sly remains on stage virtually throughout, and meanwhile the Lord also watches unobtrusively from different places in the audience.

Then begins the Shrew part of the play, or the play within the play. The plot is well known: the rich Baptista Minola who won't let his younger daughter, Bianca, marry until the older Katharina is off his hands. The trouble is, no one wants to marry Kate who has been labelled as a "shrew"; it's true to say that she's feisty to the point of uncontrollable. Bianca, as her name suggests, has a not altogether deserved reputation for mildness and is clearly her father's favourite. She assembles a trio of suitors; Kate is unwanted, until Petruchio arrives on the scene. He's just lost his father and is in search of a fortune. It's clearly not only the money that attracts him to her. Somehow the actors, Lisa Dillon and David Caves, succeeded in creating a chemistry of attraction between them despite the battle which she appears continually to lose, starting from her unwilling marriage within a day.

The final scene (in which I had to avert my eyes!) reveals her as transformed from the bride no one wanted to the wife everyone wishes they had - and it's not because she's submissive and downtrodden. She has amazing dignity and authority. She began as a shrill-tongued harridan to whom nobody listens; in her final speech you could have heard a pin drop, on stage and in the audience. I like the suggestion that this is something she's learned from her husband with whom she goes from arguing in staccato questions to listening in silence. In this production, she kneels having delivered her last lines and places her hands on the ground:
"And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease."
In response Petruchio does the same. And you sense that they've become a partnership of equals and not a constant struggle for ascendancy, and so Petruchio invites Kate, "Come on, and kiss me, Kate", "Come, Kate, we'll to bed" rather ordering her.

Rather than there being a wedding at the end as often symbolising harmony after confusions, the weddings take place earlier in the play and are all dis-ordered in some way. Kate's final speech is the great instrument which establishes the restoration of order and sanity. Lisa Dillon delivered it perfectly.

As we drove home, Ruth pointed out the Christian message in the play, particularly the play's portrayal of marriage, "submitting to one another" (Ephesians 5). And I mused on the message of grace of which there are traces, such as the "worthless" Sly being dressed in the Lord's robes with rings put on his fingers and witnessing another story of an unlovable person loved, albeit roughly, into love and universally admired beauty. I wonder if such roughness is the price of redemption......

You might enjoy the two main actors discussing their characters and relationship:
Lisa Dillon and David Caves in discussion. And although Saturday was the last day it was on at Stratford, it is going on tour to Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Richmond on Thames and Bath - so you could get to see it. It's brilliant. You will enjoy it - I guarantee.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds brilliant glad you had a lovely time : )