I’ve never seen a live production of this particular play before, and I’ll admit that my familiarity with it is largely through the camp and slick musical adaptation ‘Kiss Me Kate’ rather than the original text. Sure, the title implies that women may not exactly be portrayed in the best light, but it’s almost enough to make an apathetic quasi-equalist like me be out there burning bras.
The real problem is that the play hasn’t stood the test of time, in that the ‘comedy’ is wildly unfunny and the inequality between the sexes veers from historically appropriate to psychologically damaging. I was ambivalent at the interval but in shock by the final curtain. I waited with baited breath for Kate’s final monologue, tensing for the glorious sarcastic revenge that was no doubt to come as a response to Petruchio’s intolerable cruelty. Instead, there was misty-eyed supplication, the speech of a downtrodden wife who had been beaten, starved and tortured into submission. There was no dramatic relief as a result, but I can’t help feeling that these directorial and acting choices have merely exposed the play for what it is: a dark and disturbing tale of misogyny and viciousness, certainly not one that should be celebrated.
After all, Shakespeare can do the whole ‘spiteful banter as foreplay’ thing so well – look at Much Ado About Nothing (my definitive Beatrice and Benedick being Harriet Walter and Nic Le Provost at the Haymarket a few years back). Hell, it’s one of the most used romantic storylines even to this day: House and Cuddy, Mulder and Scully, the list goes on. This just fails on a number of levels and instead of stooping to save the material, they lay it bare in all its distasteful glory.
Michelle Gomez does a fantastic job within the considerable limitations of the role. It’s so un-modern, so contrary to the image of women that I’ve grown up with that I almost couldn’t believe what I was watching. I could have done with her being a little less screechy at first, but girl’s got to show she’s off her rocker somehow. It set up as such a delightful sparring match, but even though her physical comedy was impeccable, watching a man hit a woman (even while she gave something back) was the first arse-shifting uncomfortable moment. I knew she could do bonkers, loud and pretty funny, but after the interval she came into her own as a dramatic force.
There’s no two ways about it, Petruchio (an entirely unsympathetic character I found) absolutely destroys Kate. There’s no spark left, and watching her decline is as frustrating as it is unsettling. It’s a portrayal of domestic abuse, in its own way, of how one human being can claim another through ‘love’ and leave them as nothing. By the time we get to marital rape of a sorts, the play within the play is over and the tinker is just another bum left there naked and shamed. Gomez must have been drawing from somewhere pretty deep though, because for the terrible short bows she looked somewhere between collapse and floods of tears. I can’t imagine how draining that must be on a nightly basis. Still, it’s the nation’s second-favourite Shakespeare, so clearly we’re a nation of theatre-going wifebeaters. Give me Julius Caesar any day.
Which brings me to my more general problem with the RSC and its countless ‘re-invention’ of the same plays over and over again. Once in a generation perhaps there is a new definitive production of Hamlet, or Othello, but for the most part it’s simply good actors rehashing durable material with an ‘angle’ that makes it somehow edgy or relevant. We’ve been through the permutations: set it in Nazi Germany, a nightclub, its original era, or as in the case of last night’s show – a 2008 stag do and 16th century Padua. It’s interesting for a few moments but ultimately the words are the same and the characters have the same limitations, so we’re essentially paying £50 to watch someone reinvent the wheel. Not that I’ve paid full-price for a theatre ticket in years, but plenty of other people still have to. If I never have to watch another disguise/mistaken identity/fool the young maiden storyline again, it will be too soon quite frankly. The rest of this play is merely a distraction from the main misogynistic event and I can’t really bring myself to review the camp prancing and falling-to-knees that constitutes RSC comedy routines.
I slipped out of the Novello stunned, updating Twitter as I fumbled to get my mind back on track for the journey home. It was certainly harrowing, and Michelle Gomez is a tour de force who deserves a better vehicle for her considerable talent next time. Should you wish to subject yourself to it, the play is on until 7th March at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London. In the meantime, they should provide some sort of in-foyer counselling service, or at the very least a trauma helpline like after they deal with ‘issues’ in Eastenders.