27 February 2009

Good Kate, he is no gentleman

The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Novello Theatre, London
12 February - 7 March 2009

[Pic: Tristram Kenton, Guardian]

Last night I attended an excellent Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Novello Theatre in Aldwych. I have to admit that I am no great theatre-goer, but was instead drawn in by that decades-old tactic of casting someone famous from the telly in a leading role. Michelle Gomez was brilliant as the melodramatic and put-upon footballer's wife Janice in The Book Group, and menacingly unapproachable in the hospital comedy Green Wing as the psychotic Sue White:

... a staff liaison officer employed to listen and respond to the problems of East Hampton's staff. However, Sue, a Scot, is perhaps the least suited person for the job. She is the most eccentric member of staff in the hospital; abrasive, cruel, foul-mouthed, obsessive and, seemingly, a sociopath. Her office is a place where the impossible tends to happen, and anyone who enters is normally treated with a mixture of verbal abuse and psychological torture. The only person she treats with any affection is Mac, whom she loves to the point of madness, but Mac, like everyone else in the hospital, sees her as beyond the edge of insanity. Anyone else who attempts to get involved with Mac is treated with contempt and hatred by Sue, in particular Caroline, whom Sue attempts several times to murder.

Unsurprisingly, Gomez is superb as the titular shrew, Katharina, from the zest with which she torments her poor sister Bianca and her suitor Petruchio, to the resigned and weary acceptance of her fate implicit in the famous speech at the close in which she entreats her fellow women to be obedient wives. This latter speech, its unalloyed subjugation still shocking to today's sensibilities, is performed straight without irony, and Gomez invests it with a clear and resolute power that would have been easy to undermine with a flicker of insincerity, given the anachronistic sentiments being expressed.

The advantage of seeing an RSC performance is the quality of the broader cast. Stephen Boxer is remarkably watchable as the contemptible Petruchio and even turns his hand to strumming a ditty on the lute late in the piece. I had recognised pretty Amara Karan, who portrays Bianca, from somewhere but I had to look her listings up to be reminded that she appeared in Wes Anderson's excellent The Darjeeling Limited - she is a name to watch for the future. I also recognised some faces from an RSC performance of Timon of Athens last summer, and was pleased to see their touch for comedy on display again, particularly Peter Shorey as Gremio - his witty performances are replete with top-notch timing.

The performance contained many enjoyably comedic devices. Keir Charles' Tranio displays a playful confusion of accents: the cockney servant drops his tees and aitches but then has to pretend he is his own lord Lucentio, so essays a Cockney version of a posh accent. Later, he has to mimic the Pedant who he has enviegled to pose as Lucentio's wealthy father Vincentio, who in this production is West Indian and speaks with a broad Jamaican accent - so it's a Cockney trying to sound both posh and Jamaican. When Tranio - who is pretending to be Lucentio - offers Bianca a 'small packet of Greek and Latin books' for her studies, his boy Biondello carries forth onto the stage a looming tower of tomes perhaps eight feet high with an internal wire holding them together so they can threaten to engulf the front rows of the audience (at which point Gremio mutters to the audience, sotto voce, 'Cheap joke'). There's also a bounty of licentious and bawdy by-play in keeping with the boisterous spirit of Shakespeare's comedies, particularly when Lucentio and Bianca consummate their lust (both fully-clothed, mind).

New Zealand readers might have noticed a recent story from the Independent, reprinted in its stablemate the Herald, about the opening scene of the production in which a roistering crowd of revellers perform a drunken version of Ka Mate, the All Blacks' haka:

[The play] opens with a rowdy stag party. As the men stumble out of a strip club (still clutching a blow-up sex doll), they perform a dance inspired by Ka Mate haka – as performed in all international matches by the All Blacks rugby team. In an unfortunate variation, the stage version ends with the dropping of trousers down and the audience being “mooned”.


Matiu Rei, a Ngati Toa spokesman, said yesterday: “That certainly isn’t an appropriate use of the haka. If it was just for effect and used in a gratuitous manner – which it sounds like it was – then I would be very disappointed. I’ll consult with my chiefs and we’ll see what they decide on what further action to take.”

Karl Burrows, a Maori living in the UK, runs a company which promotes the tribe’s culture. He was furious yesterday about the RSC’s casual use of the sacred ritual. “Everybody from our culture would resent that because it’s just not appropriate. When we see our haka performed in a way that’s disrespectful it hurts us as a people.

At the performance last night there seemed little that could give offence. Certainly, the haka is performed by drunken characters, but the verse is clearly audible and seemed accurate enough, as were the gestures performed to accompany the chant. A couple of the actors did have their trousers hitched down to display their boxers but didn't moon the audience. It was reminiscent of many a pub scene in London with inebriated males putting on a display, and it's not as if many New Zealand males haven't done the same thing in the same situation. (Not me though - shouting is bad manners! And as Daniel Vettori said, 'skinny white men with glasses shouldn't do hakas')

Foreigners are not familiar with the reverence Maori imbue in the haka; indeed, many overseas observers perceive it as slightly comical. They cannot be judged by the same standards as we New Zealanders, who know the importance of the ritual. This rendition is not exploitative or gratuitously inaccurate, and those who are quick to take offence where none is meant should bear that in mind. My opinion of the hasty dash to take offence is to offer the famous Oscar Wilde epigram: 'the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about'.
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