Women, eh. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. This proves to be true in some surprising ways in Shakespeare's two comic romances now playing in the rival "wooden 'O's" of the Globe and the Swan. To deal first with The Taming of the Shrew - an early comedy: Kate is obviously the nightmare bride of Padua by repute. All the suitors knocking at her father's door seek her sister's hand. Only Petruchio is prepared to grapple with the stroppy, wilful Kate in return for her dowry which, we gather, he needs to survive. Instead of a honeymoon, he holds he must "kill her in her own humour", breaking her wild spirit, before they can cohabit happily with the man "in right supremacy".
In Phyllida Lloyd's ultimately delightful staging, with an all-female cast, Kathryn Hunter's tiny, charismatic Kate is never really ferocious. A physical theatre actress, she clowns boisterously, kneeing gents in the breeches. Personally, I missed the psychological depth and real grief of Alexandra Gilbreath's unloved Kate in Greg Doran's current RSC production (at the RST, Stratford). Nevertheless, Hunter bobs and hops about like a peculiarly charming, hyperactive child, having an impish laugh. She wins the audience's heart and her bridegroom's too. Meanwhile, handsome, strapping Janet McTeer makes an amazingly sexy Petruchio, striding round in long, soft riding boots. That's the extraordinary triumph of this production.
The show starts off looking uncomfortably like a girls' school panto, but the ensemble is boosted by a merrily scraggy Linda Bassett playing the manservant Grumio, and by Petruchio's witty first entrance, bidding a raunchy farewell to Verona who is not a town but a mistress here. Most importantly, you believe McTeer has the heart and soul of a man. Her cross-dressing is very complex in effect. She is evidently an actress exuberantly sending up swaggering blokes: peeing against a pillar, wiping her hand on the arse of her breeches, and casually slurping beer. Interestingly though, this unladylike performance makes her attractive because it's so liberated and natural. The cross-gender casting also helps makes Petruchio seem more playful and less overbearing for a post-feminist audience. That said, again in Doran's RSC Shrew, Jasper Britton makes Petruchio sympathetic by more fully probing this newly orphaned man's emotional problems. With Lloyd, the potentially dark heart of the play seem lightweight and slightly puzzling.
Petruchio starves Kate of food and affection until she's agreed with every mad word he says, but Hunter doesn't seem to be suffering much and hasn't put up much of a fight in the first place. What's wonderful is this pair's instant chemistry and the teasing sexual equality they achieve in the end. It's enormously seductive and sweet the way McTeer's Petruchio stops Hunter's scampering Kate in her tracks, just standing and looking down at her while she fiddles shyly with a curl. The "manhandling" in that wooing scene, with McTeer throwing her long arms around Hunter, is also adorably (and adoringly) teasing. In the notoriously problematic final scene - where Petruchio wagers he has the most dutiful wife and wins - Hunter proves cleverly and entertainingly unrestrained. She recites the required sermon on obeying thy husband but she comically suggests this is OTT by leaping on the supper table to make her point more strongly. The game with Petruchio is clearly ongoing as, to underline just how "soft and weak and smooth" women are, Hunter displays her slim little legs and has to be swiftly hoisted down by her husband.
I wasn't so keen on the RSC's Cymbeline. Here Imogen is fundamentally an ideal wife, unjustly maligned. She's loving and loyal to her husband, Posthumus. He can't live with her because he is banished by her father, the titular king. Lamentably, in exile, Posthumus falls for the lies of the Italian rover Iachimo, believing his uxorious wager lost and his bride turned whore. So he decides she can't live, full-stop. Fleeing to the woods near Milford Haven disguised as a boy, Imogen survives to forgive her spouse. In Dominic Cooke's production, the happy ending is pointedly problematic. Emma Fielding's Imogen and Daniel Evans's Posthumus kneel and exchange once again their early love tokens: the ring and bracelet which Iachimo filched. However, rather than the harmony often associated with the reunions in Shakespeare's late romances, here one high melancholy note hangs in the air making you wonder if this couple's sorrow is all behind them. That's a justifiable, ambivalent conclusion. Posthumus has been a nightmare husband.
The trouble with this production is that Fielding and Evans are never really charming or touching. There's not much palpable chemistry between them. Evans exudes intensity but fails to convey any explanation of why Posthumus is so quick to believe himself jilted. Only his costume - a tank top and chequered trousers - reminds us that he's a commoner who has married a princess and might be insecure. Fielding has delicate beauty and sturdy purity as both woman and boy. But her verse-speaking only sounds good; often it's not pinned to genuine feelings. When she says she's faint with hunger in the woods, she looks fine. Like Hunter's Kate, her suffering seems skin-deep.
Overall Cooke's directing is too slow-paced and not insightful or funny enough to stop this piece dragging. Still, the Victorian-cum-tribal costumes by Rae Smith can be fascinatingly weird, with top hats worn with feathers and war paint. That brings a hint of Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the Roman outpost of Ancient Britain. The deus ex machina is a stupendous coup de théâtre too, as all the lights seem to short-circuit, then Jupiter drops from the sky in a blinding flash, giant wings unfurling. Anton Lesser also shines out as Iachimo, an icy cad who is overwhelmed by his conscience even as he crawls over Imogen's sleeping body, chillingly lifting the sheet. Strong moments amidst dull stretches.
'The Taming Of The Shrew': Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 28 Sept; 'Cymbeline': Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon (0870 609 1110), to 7 NovReuse content