Lazarus Theatre’s first offering of the summer is a 90-minute production of the notorious Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew, running for another week at Brockley Jack Theatre. Though often not played that way, it is technically a play within a play, as Sly is brought in and has something performed to suit his rather questionable sensibilities.
In this version, the setting is a modern-day festival. The cast are setting things up, ensuring everyone has a wristband and enough to eat, when an element of audience participation comes in: show your special skill and you could earn yourself a drink! Who could turn that down? After someone whistling through their teeth and another touching their nose with their tongue, the final participant (a latecomer) decides to tell a joke – he earns the drink if five people laugh. Given three chances, his jokes get increasingly sexist until we realise he’s Sly, and he’s about to have a play put on for him.
What follows is an abridged version of the well-known tale, wherein Petruchio offers to marry the scolding Katherine to help his friend Hortensio in his bid to woo her sister Bianca, who cannot marry until Katherine has. His ‘taming’ consists of mental abuse, wearing her down until she bends to his will – ending up as the only wife who obeys her husband’s command to come to him without question.
It’s a difficult one to perform, as it appears deeply misogynistic when not looked at carefully, or produced without enough sensitivity. There’s no doubt that this is as good a time as any to put this play on, as women’s rights appear to be going backwards thanks to executive orders and archaic ways of thinking. Even if you’re not a fan of the work, its ability to stimulate conversation is more vital than ever; Sara Reimers’ quality production for Lazarus both enables this and manages to show the play in a better light.
The idea of a festival setting is an immediate ice-breaker between cast and audience, and really makes the play within a play framework fly. It’s an immediately recognisable scene that feels genuinely plausible. It also allows the metatheatricality of the whole piece to be played upon, adding layers and depth to the storytelling.
It is a commendable performance from the ensemble, showing real energy and commitment from the off. There is also 50:50 gender casting, though with two of these traditionally male roles being those of servants there is a little way to go. However, Evangeline Dickson and Rachel Smart take on the roles of Tranio and Biondello/Grumio with gusto.
Charlotte Dowding is a modern, stubborn Katherina, and is very funny as she plays tricks on her supposedly perfect sister Bianca (Sabrina Laurison) – trapping her in a sleeping bag, for one! Mathew Foster’s Petruchio is initially rather charming, if a bit laddish, but as time goes on his cruel nature starts to show itself; this makes his behaviour all the more sinister.
My verdict? A smart take on a problematic play, that is full of verve and creativity – a good starting point for some important conversations.
The Taming of the Shrew runs at Brockley Jack Theatre until 5 August 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.