Magazine article The Spectator

Battle of the Sexes

Magazine article The Spectator

Battle of the Sexes

Article excerpt

Kiss Me, Kate Old Vic, until 2 March 2013

Tough play, The Taming of the Shrew.

Uniquely among Shakespeare's comedies, it moves audiences to pity and fear. It's a video-nasty in the garb of a marital farce, an uncomfortable romance whose closing reconciliation scene invariably draws lusty hisses from female play-goers as Kate renounces her autonomy and bows to the will of her brutal husband, Petruchio. Directors prefer to approach this squirm-inducing parade of sexual violence through the comforting distortions of a veil. Single-gender productions are popular. In a Gujurati version, Kate is portrayed as an immigrant and the title had been coyly changed to A Foolish Foreign Woman Comes to Her Senses.

Cole Porter goes for the vegetarian option by taking us backstage during a tour of the play. The actors playing Kate and Petruchio are disenchanted lovers who still have feelings for one another. The set-up is far from simple. In the opening scene we meet Lilli, a fading movie star playing Kate, who learns that her ex-squeeze, Fred (playing Petruchio), has seduced an actress named Lois who plays Bianca. This swarm of info is complicated by the unfamiliar setting in Baltimore, 1948. The script is crammed with local references centred on the comic idea that the city is a dump riddled with philistines and gangsters.

Trevor Nunn's production takes time to warm up. Blame the script. With backstage comedies, where the leads must play both themselves and a dramatic character, there's always a great diminution of psychological interest. In Shakespeare, Petruchio is a swaggering, virile anti-hero. But who is Fred in this decaffeinated version? Well, Fred is a charming duffer who goes on a short and predictable journey from philandering loverat to chastened prodigal. Not terribly fascinating. Lilli/Kate has a better claim on our interest because her bursts of violence are athletic and funny and her contribution to the gender debate - 'I Hate Men' - is succinct and nicely barbed.

Yet her character makes little sense. On stage, she's a raging harpy but as soon as she totters back to her dressing-room she dwindles into a self-pitying kitten who cries buckets when she discovers a bunch of flowers that she wrongly believes has been delivered by Fred as a peace offering. This makes no sense at all. She's either a weepy little hummingbird or she's a lady thug swinging her fists around and clattering heavyweights to the ground.

The most layered and satisfying character is Lilli's lover, General Harrison Howell. …

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