The Taming of the Shrew ***1/2

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most controversial plays in the English language. Its war-of-the-sexes plotting, with themes of dowries and female obedience, comes across as obsolete to a modern audience. And yet, with its rich collection of characters and witty banter, it still remains a favourite with theatres.

Any successful production of Shrew is down to the director’s concept, or how the play is envisioned. Director Gordon Barr has decided to adopt a world located in the pages of such star-eyed tabloids as Heat and OK, and for the most part it works. It’s a world close enough to reality to be recognisable but false and cartoonish enough to be lampooned. It is a place where style is certainly over substance and no one is completely sympathetic, even though we end up liking most of the characters.

Barr has made some changes that make this a more palpable version, including key cuts and the casting of some male roles with women (thus giving women a better presence onstage). But there is no getting around the problematic ending, where the audience is presented with a gentlemen’s wager that comes across as unnecessarily cruel and a final monologue that can easily demean a major character. Barr doesn’t reinterpret these moments, as many past production have, but he presents us with a final moment that makes it all a bit more forgivable.

The cast are very commendable and work well as an ensemble. Bard in the Botanics runs a mentoring scheme with recent university graduates, and this year’s lot fair well, even if they are noticeably weaker in their work with iambic pentameter than the more established cast members.

But any production of Shrew falls to its Kate and Petruchio, and here Barr is given two excellent performances. Jennifer Dick gives a different take on Kate, one which isn’t traditional but works, and Grant O’Rourke plays Petruchio as a mostly jovial drunk, with most of his acts of ‘taming’ seen more as pranks than acts of forced submission. Their scenes together are the production’s highlight, and there is a nice playfulness to the ensuing ‘war’.

This production of Shrew has its heart in the right place, finding plenty of laughs and making the rather harsh ending almost work.  It’s a more than worthy production of a famously difficult play.

Playing in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens until July 11.

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