Contemporary distaste for The Taming of the Shrew is never adequately justified by the play itself which is delivered in quotation marks as a sort of warped treatise on sexual relations between a choleric, charismatic bully and a nightmarishly spirited and waspish hoyden.
Petruchio and Katharina – here played as an over-age mismatch – may be heading towards an ironically submissive partnership, but they understand fully where they are coming from, sharing a joke about oral sex (“with my tongue in your tail”) in their first private encounter.
The scenes of “killing a wife with kindness” – starvation, cruelty, sensory deprivation – are as much a shock to our system as they are to Katharina’s: in this RSC revival by Conall Morrison, Michelle Gomez enters a zombie state of cipher-like spokesperson for the married woman as she delivers her duty speech before placing her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot. Here, Gomez rejoins the acting troupe that has backed a lorry into a city red light district in the Christopher Sly prologue and contemptuously empties his bag of tinker’s clothes beside the naked, shivering drunk who has dreamed the whole charade.
As Stephen Boxer makes abundantly clear, Petruchio’s campaign of assault and humiliation is the wish-fulfilment of a nasty sexist braggart. And the affair runs parallel with the true love adventure between Kate’s sister Bianca (wittily, prettily played by Amara Karan) and the resourceful Lucentio (Patrick Moy) who has to outwit the unsuitable suitors by disguising himself as his own servant, Tranio.
There’s far too much RSC shouting and “comic acting” going on – Keir Charles’s moronic Tranio and Larrington Walker’s pointlessly Caribbean merchant are chief offenders. The show gets a grip in the second half and develops the comedy of mistaken identity and assumed role-playing to a level concomitant with the vigour and durability of the whole play.
Across town, in another RSC production, the extraordinary actress Kathryn Hunter directs a touring version of Othello with Patrice Naiambana as an imposing, vocally burnished tragic hero and Natalia Tena, an RSC debutant, as an athletic, vocally impoverished Desdemona.
Tena sings well enough, but can’t speak verse. That’s not viewed as a handicap at the RSC these days, and she compensates by dancing topless on her honeymoon in Cyprus and striking balletic poses in the fatal bedroom, where she is visited on billowing clouds of sheets in dreamland by her father, Brabantio (Hannes Flaschberger; bad verse speaking obviously runs in the family).
The play starts on a bridge of sighs in Venice, where Othello and his bride sing an African chant as he makes a present of the strawberry decorated handkerchief. The bridge provides the prow of the vessel arriving in the harbour, but otherwise gets in the way too much (poor design by Liz Cooke).
The tupping of a white ewe by a black ram is at the centre of the play’s social discourse, and it is refreshingly honest of Hunter to take us back to it, even if she over-strains in the “physical theatre” department. Naiambana growls and fumes to volcanic effect, cracking a huge bullwhip with which he finally strangles Desdemona; his epileptic fit is the best I’ve seen since Olivier, and his switch to unstoppable vengeance mode truly terrifying.
At the Hackney Empire matinee, Iago (Michael Gould) was indisposed and Cassio (Alex Hassell) stepped up the rankings to make a fair fist of the second longest role after Hamlet, while Robert Vernon as Cassio proved he must be a very good Ludovico when everyone’s back on parade.
‘Othello’ touring to 7 March; www.rsc.org.uk. ‘Shrew’ to 7 March (0844 482 5135)