Theatre: The man who mistook his wife for a chattel

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S A famous moment in The Taming of the Shrew when Petruchio adds insult to injury and, having kept the wedding party waiting for his arrival, turns up in outrageously shabby old clothes on a sway-backed nag. In Lindsay Posner's delightfully fresh new production, which has just opened in the Pit prior to Stratford and a tour, this familiar sequence gets a provocative new twist. For Stuart McQuarrie's excellent, beefy Scots Petruchio shows up for his nuptials in an Elizabethan frock - and what a picture he looks as he calmly shrugs off the appalled protestations of the assembled guests.

Transvestism in the Shrew is usually confined to the page boy in the Christopher Sly introduction. Extending it to Petruchio in the pre-wedding scene does more than incite the laughter of surprise.

Cleverly, his cross-dressing gesture here sends out ambiguous messages. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as a casual slight to womankind; on the other, it looked to me as though this satiric sartorial similarity was Petruchio's way of signalling to Kate (Monica Dolan) that they are alike in a much deeper sense - two quirky originals and potential soulmates in a dull social world.

In its staging ideas and the rich personality of its casting, this production is artfully pitched to take to the road and win over the kind of young crowd who would not naturally put an evening at this allegedly misogynist comedy on the top of any wish-list.

Posner positions the Kate and Petruchio story (here set in the correct period) within a Christopher Sly framing device that has been brought bang up to date. At the start the drunken Sly (also played by McQuarrie) is thrown out of a discotheque and carted off in a stupor by passing nobs. Instead of staging the main drama as a play-within-a-play put on for his deceived benefit, it is here presented as the activity on an Internet site that Sly stumbles upon while making a stymied effort to find porn.

At the end, using passages from another Shakespeare-derived play, The Taming of A Shrew, he's dumped back outside the disco where he berates two female acquaintances (one of them played by Dolan) for waking him "out of the best dream I ever had in my life".

So, in one sense, there is an escape clause here for the controversial sexual politics in the main plot. It was all just the wishful fantasy of male domination of the drunken contemporary yob. Happily, the performances of McQuarrie and Dolan - both wonderfully cast for their oddball modernity (he with his amused potato face; she with her tart, independent aggressiveness) - dissuade one from taking that easy way out.

God knows, it doesn't convert the Shrew into a feminist tract, but it certainly makes some kind of respectable emotional sense of it, if as here, you get an impression of growing complicity and sexual rapport between tamer and tamed. Dolan delivers the notorious submission speech with a spell-binding intensity that also has about it the air of a private joke between her and Petruchio. At such moments, you begin to see the lovers not as Shakespeare's most unfortunate conjunction, but as a dry run for those other happily paired misfits, Beatrice and Benedick.

To 20 Nov, (0171-638 8891); 2 Dec- 15 Jan, The Swan, Stratford-upon- Avon (01789 403403); then touring