Published in Time Out March 19, 2020
There’s probably a German word for the precise feeling of frustration you get watching Globe artistic director and world-class Shakespearean actor Michelle Terry sat on stage, not playing one of the thorniest parts in Shakespeare.
Especially given that, in this bizarre take on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, her husband, Paul Ready, is Petruchio: it was not unreasonable to expect that she might play his warring partner Kate.
But then, Maria Gaitanidi’s befuddling version of Shakespeare’s problem(atic) play makes much of being an ensemble piece: according to the programme notes, casting wasn’t decided till late on in the process, once the company had thoroughly explored the text’s ‘mythic’ potential.
Hmmm. I guess it works for Anthony Neilson – but you can’t help but pity the actors who had to learn some of these parts at short notice. Still, it’s hard to figure out quite why they alighted on Melissa Riggall to play Kate. The character is variously described as wild, raging, loud, angry; Riggall’s performance is static and unreactive, prettily demure and ever so well-spoken. She sounds more like she’s delivering a particularly earnest stanza on ‘Poetry Please’ than sparring waspishly.
Initially I wondered if this would be the point – a new concept, revealing how society judges women on ridiculous standards of behaviour, even when they’re blamelessly completely bland. But everything in the programme notes suggests Gaitanidi wanted to get away from such a gender-politics kinda reading.
Not that that matters – the dramatic effect is that Kate has precisely nowhere to travel: she starts placid and ends placid. She has apparently neither hatred for Ready’s Petruchio – the original sadistic gaslighter (and polar opposite of his eager-to-please Kevin in ‘Motherland’) – but nor do they have any subversive, sexy spark. There’s one arresting dance sequence at the wedding, where the couple circle each other like cobras, equally dangerous opponents – but the charge doesn’t translate into the text, or the rest of the evening. And while I’m not someone who thinks this play is too misogynistic to be done these days, I do think that in 2020 you probably want some kind of read on Kate’s submissive final speech rather than just delivering it tonelessly out front.
Ready brings more spirit to his role, and Globe regular James Northcote is also notably lithe and amusing as lovestruck suitor Lucentio. The production includes Shakespeare’s weird opening Christopher Sly framework, emphasising how ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a play within a play, with Terry intriguingly managing to simultaneously suggest she’s both a minor character (the servant Biondello) and a harried director ushering around the players, prompt book in hand. But she feels squandered and – given she’s also the Globe’s actor-manager AD, who’s sought to downgrade the role of the directors in her hit-and-often-miss tenure – there’s a pretty cruel irony to this particular bit of layered casting.
Gaitanidi’s painfully plodding production surely is trying to layer up these different levels of resonance, but her take lacks basic clarity: the narrative doesn’t come across crisply, and the heavy doubling doesn’t help matters. Liam Bunster’s set adds various platforms around the Sam Wanamaker auditorium, offering new playing spaces, but ones that also more literally get in the way – there is often not even a clear view, never mind vision.