Sally MacAlister

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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She Can’t Half Talk

 

31/10/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s Hallowe’en, but we’ve already done the spooky stuff. We carved our Jack O’Lantern days ago (the pumpkin soup is just a memory now), and we saw Dracula at the King’s last night. So tonight we eschew the Cameo’s Rocky Horror costume party, and head instead to Bedlam, where a series of monologues awaits.

Writer/director Sally MacAlister might still be a student (she’s in her third year here at Edinburgh), but her scripts are lively and assured. They’re original and sprightly, funny and sad. We’re impressed: this young playwright clearly has a bright future ahead.

The play comprises five unlinked twenty-minute monologues: there’s a foetus gleaning all she can about her mother and the outside world; a sex worker contemplating her future; a drag queen facing Christmas without his children; a tough kid refusing to accept her ‘victim’ label; a middle-aged woman raging against her dwindling sex appeal. They’re varied pieces, both in content and tone, and we’re intrigued by every one.

The Foetus is the quirkiest piece, a whimsical idea played with charm and vivacity by Julia Weingartner, and The Drag Queen (Myles Westman) the saddest, a tale of hidden truths, infused with gentle melancholy. The Camera Girl is outrageous and funny, with Megan Lambie’s bold, engaging performance really drawing out the laughs. There’s some interesting direction in this piece too: I like the use of Liam Bradbury as the banker, mirroring the girl’s movements as she tells the story of their disastrous date.

Perhaps the least credible is The Cougar: Kelechi Hafstad can clearly act and conveys the character’s emotions well, but she’s much too young for the part, and the writing here is less convincing too: I don’t think a fifty-eight year old would describe herself as ‘elderly’ nor compare herself to Helen Mirren (who’s fifteen years older, at seventy-three). Still, there are some lovely ideas in the script, and the delivery is witty.

My favourite is The Victim, a raw account of a teenage girl drawn into a cycle of rape and abuse. Tilly Botsford’s performance is mesmerising, and she really knows how to work a pause (the silence after the innocuous line, ‘She fell off a horse’ is the most powerful moment of the night).

All in all, She Can’t Half Talk is an impressive piece, and Sally MacAlister is clearly a name to watch out for.

Take a blanket and a hot drink though. Bedlam Theatre is really cold.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield