Theatre: Taming in the rain

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The Independent Culture
THIS PRODUCTION by the Northcott Theatre in Exeter's Rougemont Gardens marks the fifth year of open-air Shakespeare performances in the city. In previous productions, the setting - an 11th-century Norman castle moat - has provided an inspired backdrop for A Midsummer Night's Dream, and has been gloriously flooded for The Tempest. Continuing through the Shakespearean repertoire, the company has arrived at the stumbling block of The Taming of the Shrew.

The play is the story of the subjugation of Kate, a fiery woman of independent views, into a submissive wife who would agree that white is black if her husband said so. Would it have been better to have circumnavigated this hoary old potboiler? Kinder to pretend that it did not exist?

Consider the plot. An overbearing young buck does a deal with a wealthy citizen to take his free-thinking daughter off his hands for a dowry. The vexatious female is bundled off to a husband who bullies her, denies her food and clothes, turns up for their wedding in rags and odd boots and humiliates her until she capitulates in such a wholesome fashion that everyone in earshot wants to throw up.

To make matters worse, Shakespeare's prologue, which puts the proceedings at a distance by making them the dream of a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, has been omitted from this production.

On the opening night, the heavens opened in reproof, delaying the start (in five years of outdoor shows on this site, only one has been rained off). When things eventually settled down, Mark Healy strode about as the gallumphing Petruchio, while Anna Northam had a spat or two as Katherine.

The ensemble work was generally good, despite the fact that the set has some long and high entrances and exits. Rosalind Paul catches the eye in a minor part - her innate sense of fun and neatness of movement is a joy to watch. In the climactic submission speech, Northam maintained Kate's dignity, but did not display the twinkling sense of irony that might have made her subjugation slightly less unpalatable.

Taming of the Shrew is part of the Exeter Festival, and runs in Rougemont Gardens until 14 August, with matinees on Saturdays. Box office: 01392 493493