Propeller Arts is an all-male-troupe, which is unusual in itself when gender-blind casting in Shakespeare is on the rise and more women are taking leading male roles.
In this production, which forms a double bill on alternate nights with Twelfth Night, the players’ gender doesn’t bring much extra to the play (in fact, you forget that Bianca and Kate are men under their dramatic makeup and frilly dresses), but Propeller puts on a beguiling show nonetheless, with outrageous costumes and plenty of slapstick. It’s vibrant, silly and very saucy -- visual gags abound.
Good-for-nothing drunkard Christopher Sly becomes Petruchio (played with swaggering charm by Vince Leigh) in a dream, adding layers to the latter’s misogyny, which initially is played for laughs before becoming far more sinister in the second half. Petruchio arrives at his wedding in cowboy boots and tasselled jacket, a T-Shirt with a dollar sign, a bottle of vodka and a thong, which he takes great pleasure in flashing.
Meanwhile wild Kate, played by Dan Wheeler, is a modern-day punk-goth hybrid in black tutu, eyeliner and a shock of white-blonde hair. She (quite literally) doesn’t pull her punches and could definitely take Petruchio in a fight, which serves to emphasise Petruchio’s manipulative prowess and psychological grip on her. It’s an interesting comment on domestic violence against both men and women. Wheeler plays Kate without a hint of attraction to Petruchio or a smidgen of malleability, which makes her final act of total and sudden submission shocking and all the more poignant.
Shakespeare’s script is mostly adhered to, but additions come in the form of musical interludes with song, a saxophone and electric guitars (which, like most of the props, get smashed up — it’s all very physical stuff, like watching a pub brawl stretched over two hours). Other amendments to the text come from the frequent excited old man noises emitted by John Dougall’s pensionable and worryingly randy Gremio and the extra line, “bullshit”, muffled by a cough, yet distinctly heard.
While not endorsed by the other characters, Petruchio’s unbridled violence to his wife is not resolved in a harmonious partnership, instead we are left with the unsettling suggestion that Sly will now return to his real-life wife and repeat the brutality played out in his dream. It’s not all dark though. Go for Propeller’s ingenious wit and ability to extract energy and humour from almost every line.