Shrew – Salford Arts Theatre (GM Fringe 2019)

I want to begin this review by firmly stating that I truly dislike The Taming of the Shrew. Unlike most of William Shakespeare’s plays, this one really hasn’t aged well. I have always struggled to consider his play, in which a woman is broken into submission by her abusive husband, a comedy. It is difficult to discern any humour in a play that depicts appalling psychological and physical abuse. This continues to cause issues for contemporary audiences and theatre makers alike. How do you stage a 400 year old comedy that, quite frankly, isn’t funny anymore?

Mrs Pankhurst’s Players provide an answer to this question by staging a bold, feminist adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, that doesn’t try to be funny, defiantly stating #ItsNotFunny. Instead, Emma Heron‘s Shrew is a tense, harrowing domestic drama set in a nightclub; a dark world of gangsters, where marriage is a business transaction, and women are property.

Shrew Salford Arts Theatre GM Fringe 2019 Manchester Theatre Review Mrs Pankhurst Players Shakespeare The Taming of the Shrew
The drag kings of Baptista’s bar. Picture Credit – Helen Newall.

Surprisingly, Shrew opens with lip-syncing drag kings in Baptista’s Bar. But this is not an uplifting, glamorous drag show. Instead, they mouth the lyrics to Macy Gray’s emotive ballad, Still. The three drag kings provide a framing device, telling the narrative of Kate, as she is forced into marriage by her father for a bet, and becomes a pawn in her husband’s cruel game. They remain on stage throughout, deftly interchanging characters to become the ‘gentleman’ or the ‘scholar’. Most poignantly, at the end of the play, they support and comfort Kate.

Kate Carey‘s striking design is critical to portraying Shrew‘s seedy underworld of gangsters. Her exquisite costumes with fine-cut, pinstripe suits, and elegant dresses with fur shawls denote a society of excess wealth. This is a world away from Kate’s simple black dress and Doc Martin boots, her character’s defiant, rebellious attitude being suitably reflected in her costume.

Emma Heron‘s script keeps the play’s original dialogue, but truncates Shakespeare’s play into a 60 minute running time. However, the essence of The Taming of the Shrew‘s narrative evidently remains, and the psychological abuse that Kate is subjected to still makes for uncomfortable viewing. Deprived of food and water, she is mentally tortured into submission by a cruel husband.

Shrew Salford Arts Theatre GM Fringe 2019 Manchester Theatre Review Mrs Pankhurst Players Shakespeare The Taming of the Shrew
Petruchio (Josh Chadwick) and his ‘Shrew’, Kate (Rebekah Baddeley). Picture Credit – Helen Newall.

Shrew doesn’t pull any punches in depicting physical abuse either. When Petruchio first introduces himself to his prospective wife, he physically assaults and rapes Kate, covering her mouth so her father, who is in an adjacent room, can’t hear her scream. This is a harrowing scene that is truly distressing to watch, particularly as Rebekah Baddeley looks directly at the audience, silently pleading for help.

Shrew encapsulates everything I dislike about Shakespeare’s so called comedy. Rather than unsuccessfully attempting to stage a controversial comedy, straining to identify its non-existent humour, Mrs Pankhurst’s Players create a powerful piece of theatre that is intense and brutal. It is certainly not a comfortable watch, but neither is The Taming of the Shrew. Domestic abuse is no laughing matter.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Shrew is part of the GM Fringe festival, before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe from 12th-24th August.

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