Jonathan Miller‘s The Taming of the Shrew revels in misogyny, role-reversal and slap stick comedy, and for purists, the 1980 BBC production staring John Cleese remains solid, and of use in the Shakespearean film canon.
Shrew is a tricky one. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it is very entertaining. It does not have the depth or cleverness of say Much Ado About Nothing, but it is produced a lot. It works if done right, and can be very bad if done poorly.
Shrew begins and ends with Petruchio and Katherine. You get them right, and you’ve got a good production.
Cleese, as Petruchio, makes the film work with his manipulative, schizophrenic and quasi-sociopathic bullying through the role. Cleese seems to hate everyone around him, and glares at, taunts or screams at almost everyone in the cast while he tears through scenes. It’s a joy to watch.
His few soliloquies (II, i; IV, i) give the smallest glimpse at his honest intentions, and they are, simply put, to tame Kate like one would a falcon.
Sarah Bedel as Katherine runs the gamut of shrew emotions and pulls it off. Bedel is a match for Cleese, and evens the playing field.
Cleese and Bedel chew up the scenery and highlight the great thing about their characters: they hate the world they live in, and those around him, and must find a way to join forces. Bedel’s knowing glances at the end of the production are very nice. Petruchio and Katherine are together and ready to mock, bully and destroy the flaky aristocrats around them (Hortensio, Gremio, Bianca etc.)
Joining Cleese and Bedel are joined by a stellar cast of theatrically trained actors, who know the bard, and know how to play their parts.
Jonathan Cecil as Hortensio is great verging on the brink of a nervous breakdown at times chattering to the air. Anthony Pedley does Tranio’s transformation from servant-to-lord then back again really nicely with Simon Chandler‘s Lucentio doing the opposite.
One goes to the BBC productions not for camera work, cinematography or set design, but rather to see Shakespeare in its barest form. Most of the BBC’s productions work because they cast the plays right, and Shrew is no different.
That is not to say that sets and design are absent. The transition from Padua with its bright sun to Petruchio’s country house with its bleak darkness and spartan dining area do well to show the transition from the chase for the girl (act I-III) to married life (act IV). Shakespeare mocks the Comedia del Arte ideal of marriage in Shrew and Miller’s clever use of sets and lights does well to show this intention. In Shrew one needs to fight through marriage and be beaten down to be happy. Well, for the women at least.
The play is not one of Shakespeare’s deepest, and is problematic from a modern viewpoint. The insanity of it, though, is what makes it enjoyable. Why is everyone always switching roles? Why are we laughing as Petruchio is torturing Kate through sleep and food deprivation? What is the point of the banquet at the end? These are issues with the play itself, however, and the production does well to somewhat answer if not cover up the deficiencies in the story with quality acting and clever sylistic choices.
Daniel J. Rowe is the co-creator of the Bard Brawl.