Michael Hajiantonis

The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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That Face

22/03/18

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

I have to say, I’m not a great fan of Polly Stenham’s debut play. Written when she was only nineteen, it certainly shows prodigious promise – there are some gloriously grotesque characters here – but it’s all just so much sound and fury, with a payoff that is curiously flat. That said, Edinburgh-based Anais Productions make a decent fist of it, with some strong performances. They’re playing to a packed house, with a younger, more vocally appreciative audience than we usually see, and successfully create the sense of claustrophobic isolation so central to the play.

We first meet Mia (Dora Davies-Evitt) at boarding school, where, along with classmate Izzy (Sara Harvey), she has drugged and tortured a younger student (Jane Link). This is a fascinating opening gambit, and I wish Stenham had given it more space within her play; instead, it’s just a springboard into Mia’s family, as she’s expelled, and has to return home.

And home is a strange place indeed. Her mother, Martha (Hannah Churchill), is an alcoholic, addicted to valium and manipulative in the extreme. She has no time for Mia, whose very presence she sees as an interruption, but is utterly devoted to her son, Henry (Barney Rule). Abandoned by her husband, Hugh (Michael Hajiantonis), Martha makes impossible demands of Henry, who is expected to take his father’s place as carer, protector and even lover. He drops out of school and focuses all his attention on his mother, whose warped expectations fuel a monstrous co-dependency.

Churchill and Rule perform these roles with real panache, clearly relishing the chance to explore such complex, twisted characters. Churchill is utterly engaging as Martha, her mirthless smirk particularly unnerving, and Rule brings such intensity to Henry’s suffering that we cannot help but empathise. They’re hampered only by the perennial problem of student productions, i.e. they’re all about the same age, so – if you didn’t know the play – it might take a while to realise that they’re mother and son, and some of the intergenerational oddity of the relationship is lost. (Similarly, Mia is a less sympathetic character than she might be if she were visibly younger, her vulnerability more apparent.)

The weak point is the final third, when Hugh arrives from Hong Kong to deal with his daughter’s expulsion. Michael Hajiantonis plays the part convincingly, but it’s a disappointingly ordinary denouement after all the high drama, and undermines the weirdness of all that has gone before. He seems to be the scapegoat, as if his leaving is the reason for Martha’s predatory ways. The play flounders here, and never really recovers.

Still, apart from some over-extended blackouts – which, for some reason, this particular audience sees as an opportunity for chat – this is a competent production, and a welcome chance to engage with a divisive, challenging play. Do take the opportunity to see it while you can.

3 stars

Susan Singfield