First published in The Times, Tuesday June 27 2017
Last year, Bard in the Botanics, Glasgow’s long-running outdoor Shakespeare festival, launched a new strand, Writing the Renaissance, showcasing the work of the bard’s lesser-known contemporaries. The inaugural production was a radical adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, whittled down to a fleet 90 minutes and performed by a cast of just three actors.
Gordon Barr, the company’s artistic director, goes one step further with this season’s programme, rewriting Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy to incorporate John Fletcher’s feminist counterpart, The Tamer Tamed. In Fletcher’s farcical sequel, Petruchio, who tames Kate, the “shrew” of the original work, is himself taunted and humbled by Maria, his second wife.
Elements of Fletcher’s play can be traced as far back as the 5th century BC and Lysistrata, Aristophanes’s comedy, in which a group of woman set out to to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex. Barr opts to set his production far closer to our own time, drawing on the imagery, threads and music of the early 1960s, the onset of a period of substantial social change.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The walls of Gillian Argo’s set are festooned with advertising from the period, including the notorious “If your husband ever finds out” coffee campaign, in which a man is pictured spanking his wife over his knee. It’s an image that is frequently incorporated into productions of The Taming of the Shrew.
Rather than pairing the two plays, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did back in 2003, Barr weaves them together, so that Kate (Stephanie McGregor) rebounds from the abuse and humiliation she suffers at the hands of Petruchio (James Boal), to turn the tables on her husband, in collaboration with the other women in the play. There is, inevitably, something deeply satisfying about this turn of events, not least because, thanks to McGregor’s heartfelt performance, our sympathies are entirely with the maltreated Kate.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Despite the liveliness of the production, which takes place in dwindling light at the back of the glasshouses, Barr’s adaptation can’t quite overcome its hybrid origins. The torments Kate endures at Petruchio’s hands are so extreme that, when she finally stands up to Boal’s grinning sociopath, the abrupt character transformation that both leads undergo doesn’t isn’t quite credible.
There are compensations in some of the supporting performances – including Nathan Byrne’s hilarious Tranio and Beth Marshall as the gullible Baptista, mother to Kate and Bianca – and a couple of energetic dance sequences performed to rather muted 60s standards. Still, this opening production of the 2017 season doesn’t quite capitalise on its undeniable curiosity value.