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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Maria Gaitanidi directs, with Liam Bunster’s set design, Laura Moody and Vasilis Sarikis co-compose and play. Paul Russell and Cleo Maynard are Candle Consultant and Technician, with Costume Supervisor Natasha Prynne, Megan Cassidy Head of Wardrobe, Pam Humpage Head of Wigs, Hair and Make-Up, and Head of Voice Tess Dignan. Ends April 18th.


The Dreaming of the Shrew? Maria Gaitanidi’s production takes seriously that oft-lopped pre-set of dead-drunk Christopher Sly being persuaded he’s a lord and treated to a play of gleaming misogyny.

This Taming of the Shrew feels different to any other. Paul Russell’s candle-craft limns this night-piece and it’s one of his best: Gaitanidi’s taken it along with Sly’s Prologue to suggest something richer, stranger and more disturbing: subconscious misogyny in all men.

Sly’s slighted dream is the key to a trance-like ad-libbing, as words and even this text becomes slippery with other bits of Shakespeare, even Prufrock, usually mouthed by an elfin-darting Michelle Terry, as protean in roles and voices as an Ariel. Though nominally only the Prologue’s Hostess, old suitor Hortensio’s Widow and Petruccio’s servant Biondello she’s one of the reasons to see this.

Terry though, Paul Ready’s Petruccio, and James Nothcote’s Lucentio are sovereign in voice against the sleepwalking tone of many others, slowly delivered to a hypnotic use of music – Laura Moody and Vasilsi Sarikis produce a superbly nocturnal score, full of bodrum drum and singing. So that effect isn’t uniform, or perhaps some of the strongest actors simply revert to their strength.

Much has been made of the late assignment of roles, leading to a lack of vocal distinction with multi-rolings. There’s truth in this though it misses the rationale, even if that very rationale is both reinforced and sapped by expansive delivery. That’s aided by Liam Bunster’s set, with its gantry platform over the pit entrance, minimal props and an exciting use of space. Actors sit next to you, twit people, ascend various ladders in giddying vocal deliveries. Their physicality’s at odds with their vocality.

The very language woven with extra rhymes passes with a hallucinatory fascination out of Alice in Wonderland. Strange-trip detail allows new things to surface: it’s a production for the Shrew-sure, not first-timer. There’s a dance Terry leads with one famous nursery rhyme whose ‘a-tishoo’ sprays a topical shiver run straight through the audience. It may not be Shrew very exactly, but it’s the best dream Sly’s ever had. It’s Northcote who takes his part in the prologue as well as Petruccio’s well-struck servant Curtis.

Melissa Riggall’s Katherina is certainly cast against type. Her whole vocal delivery – deliberate, stately, coyly sexy – is the stuff of a striking Bianca and there’s other roles you could imagine her in. Though the Bianca we do get – Evelyn Miller – is warmly spirited and a sinewy match for Northcote’s ringing Lucentio. You believe in their attraction; it’s intimately done. Riggall drawls out a spoilt young woman’s disdain, less Sloaney perhaps than slowly, like a delicious shipping forecast. And she sings beautifully.

Indeed when she and Ready meet, yes there’s stilled expectation presaging fireworks, but instead the pair freeze into a trance-state of attraction, circling each other. They’re fascinated, savouring wit, performing a ritual dance of almost flagrant attraction to slow music. This sexual fireworks is the default interpretation but it’s usually done with Much Ado. Here it’s as if they’ve been knocked on the head by Mercutio’s Queen Mab.

The fight’s over before it’s begun. Ready’s sardonically cruel enforcement is unnecessary. There’s still a small heart-stopping moment though when his Petruccio back home chalks an evanescent meal in a circle on the Wanamaker stage floor. Riggall then inscibes assent inside it. It’s quite beautiful and emotionally it ends there. When Riggall finally delivers her submission speech it’s deadpan to the audience, not looking at a single cast member.

So if this is about battery and submission we need more and Rigggall shows flickers of what she could deliver. In the Year of the Rat Shrews should come tooth-ready as it were. Instead it’s more like Hilary the guinea-pig, not Fleabag. You can tell Riggall’s a fine Shakespearean; she deserves better.

Mattia Mariotti’s Tranio is less rapid in his delivery than most household Tranios, pretending to be his master Lucentio who as disguised Latin master gets to woo Bianca. But he’s characterful. He doubles as Petruccio’s battered servant Grumio, delivering woe from the balcony at one point. As does Terry. But she’s everywhere radiating authority, sitting beside you and in a moment vaulting up that gantry extension over the pit entrance. Her voice radiates. We’re reassured.

Jude Owusu’s a sure-footed Baptista Minola, with presence, an avuncular crispness to his daughter-dealing and a fondness for rich men, softening his voice for them not his daughters. Indeed the language of ownership, so omnipresent in this play, brings out the reciprocity of women as chattels between him and Petruccio, as all productions should. There’s a tinge of bromance in his dealings with Bianca’s would-be suitors too. Owusu’s put-upon Tailor gets laughs but the dresses descending from the heavens, courtesy of Natasha Prynne and team, are breathtaking.

Raymond Anum’s dignified if youthful Gremio is one Bianca suitor – addressing him as old brings out more than a few laughs. He’s also Lucentio’s father Vincentio – who knows nothing of Bianca.

Maria Gaitanidi’s Hortensio is the other suitor, Petruccio’s friend who first introduces him to the Minola household after Petruccio shows interest in Katherina. Whenever there’s stand-offs between people as here the rival suitors for Bianca, they take each others’ hands platonically as they’re at opposite ends of the stage perched up on balconies. There’s a bit of Brechtian scaffolding in all this, though bar a visual joke its points remain unclear. Gaitanidi’s also a brief fifth-act faux-Vincentio. She’s not technically in the cast.

Ryan Ellsworth neatly harrumphs minor parts like the music teacher Pedant. And elicits laughter as Sly’s corseted ‘Lady’, a coy houseboy. For some reason he’s not playing the Hortensio role assigned to him.

There’s dream-detailed magic here, a truly original interpretation. Some superb performances too and some missed opportunities – if some characters can speak with dispatch Katherina should be allowed that licence and depth of feeling. Elsewhere too there’s a drop in energy with some characterising, but as with some other Globe performances recently, seeing it after things come together can be a revelation. This will flourish out of its nocturnal laboratory to which one feels a privileged eavesdropper. To complain of fluidity’s to miss the point and this will entrance by the end of its run. See it before then and you’ll never think of the Shrew without this flawed, groundbreaking stab at the dreams of men.