"Revelatory" is an overworked word in the theatre reviewer's lexicon, often just a melodramatic substitute for "different". But one show that undoubtedly deserves that epithet is Gregory Doran's shining revival of The Taming of the Shrew. Brought from Stratford to the West End by the good offices of Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright, this splendid RSC production blows like a fresh, restorative breeze through the play, drawing your attention to the unexpected layers of humanity in its subtext.
This comedy has long been considered an embarrassing lapse from the Bard into coarse chauvinism. As far back as 1897, George Bernard Shaw wrote of the infamous final scene that, "No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed..." Modern directors have tried to address the problem by putting the action in ironic quotation marks - as in a recent staging that presented Petruchio and his shrew-taming methods as the revenge-fantasy dream of a drunken misogynist, who woke up at the end racked with guilt.
Doran, by contrast, dispenses with all framing devices, including the Induction provided by Shakespeare. Rather than find ingenious excuses for the play, his Elizabethan-dress production finds the play. A couple of years ago, he directed a ravishing Much Ado About Nothing, and this experience seems to have alerted him to the intriguing ways in which Katharine and Petruchio can be seen as the rumbustious precursors of Beatrice and Benedick - two innate misfits who are more independent-minded than their stuffy peers, and so have to fight and try each another sorely before they will admit to being kindred spirits.
Doran's most striking insight is that the hero is as cracked - both in the sense of damaged and of loopy - as the heroine. The hilarious manic swagger of Jasper Britton's brilliant Petruchio is evidently a front to mask an abiding insecurity. We see how he has to psyche himself up for the first encounter. His black armband suggests that he is still in shock from the death of his father, with whose portrait he cuddles up on his sexless honeymoon night. At the wedding, his aggression looks like the result of a panicky dose of Dutch courage, and throughout he seems to improvise edgily rather than work to a calmly conceived masterplan.
Meanwhile, hurtling like a deranged spitfire through the multiple doors of Stephen Brimson Lewis's witty semi-abstract set, Alexandra Gilbreath's furiously cranky, husky-voiced Katharine is clearly the love-starved victim of her father's favouritism toward his younger daughter. There's a crucial moment early on when Petruchio stops her from storming out by cracking a filthy joke about cunnilingus ("What, with my tongue in your tail?"). Gilbreath flashes him a look that floods with delight and sudden recognition. In a split second, she begins to blossom. Here, at long last, is a male oddball with whom she can do business.
This Shrew dramatises a genuine love-match. Without downplaying its depiction of the torture techniques used on the heroine (starvation, sleep deprivation), it convinces you that this pair of misfits become fellow-conspirators who manage to outwit the system. They are a law unto themselves and, from the glum faces of the other females present, it is obvious that Kate's public display of submission at the end is supposed to reveal her as a lucky special case, not a mouthpiece for womankind in general.
Of course, the reason that Gregory Doran can afford to be so unapologetic about the play is because it is about to run in repertory (using the same cast) with John Fletcher's 1611 sequel, The Tamer Tamed, a startling proto-feminist riposte to Shakespeare's comedy that opens at the same address next week.
'The Taming of the Shrew' and 'The Tamer Tamed', Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (020-7637 9041), to 6 March