The performer playing Katherine has a more densely hairy chest than the performer playing Petruchio in Edward Hall's vigorous and provocative production of The Taming of the Shrew. This is not because of some disastrously misguided decision to recruit an actress in need of drastic waxing. Hall's Propeller Company has a policy of combining a revival of the Elizabethan convention of all-male casting with a cheekily eclectic contemporary sensibility. The virtues (and some of the vices) of this approach can be seen in the two plays - The Shrew and Twelfth Night - that are now running in rep (and on some days as a double bill) at the Old Vic.
The Shrew is widely regarded as Shakespeare's most controversial and distasteful comedy. Hall redeems it from the charge of being a chauvinist drama in which, with authorial approval, a woman's spirit is broken by a thuggish new husband in two ways. First, he retains the often-dropped framing action involving the drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, and he gives this a new twist. His production begins with a wedding scene in which Sly turns up late and sloshed for his own nuptials. He thus becomes a kind of pre-echo of Petruchio and the main comic drama is presented as a dream-like play-within-play - a wish-fulfilling fantasy of wife-taming in which Sly adopts the role of Shakespeare's dominating hero.
But while this gives the main inset action an ironic context, Hall uses the all-male casting to hammer home the brutality of Petruchio's methods. Wearing little but cowboy boots and a Stetson when he shows up for his wedding, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's cocky, swaggering Petruchio is able to be as rough as he likes with Simon Scardifield's initially stroppy and increasingly withdrawn and depressed Kate. By the end, she resembles a battered wife, mouthing, with a sullen, faintly satiric edge, the letter but not the spirit of the submission speeches. Modern productions often intimate that Kate and Petruchio recognise each other as soul-mates and that the public demonstration of complete obedience is their private conspiratorial joke. Here, in a version that is boisterously comic in other respects, Scardifield's superb performance refuses to give the audience that refuge.
Some of the melancholic delicacy of Twelfth Night is lost in Hall's rather over-the-top production. But the single-sex casting undeniably intensifies the frissons of erotic ambiguity. Tam Williams is a wonderfully sensitive Viola. The fact that he is a man playing a woman pretending to be a man highlights the homosexual dimension in Orsino's fondness for "Cesario" and adds a layer of complication to Viola's statement that "I am not what I am". Having played a highly butch Petruchio, Bruce-Lockart offers an exaggerated contrast in his over-camp and vampish Olivia in Twelfth Night. The versatility of the actors, though, is one of the great pleasures of the double bill, as is the terrific sense of a strongly bonded company.