Venue: Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Dates: 1 – 22 February
Producers: Northern Ireland Opera & Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves effectively to song and dance adaptations. Look no further, for example, than West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) and The Boys of Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors).
In the light of the Me Too campaign, Northern Ireland Opera and the Lyric Theatre have collectively made a bold choice in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, a sparky, structurally complex play-within-a-play framed by the misogynistic romp that is The Taming of the Shrew,
The veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington once called The Shrew “… a barbaric, disgusting play” and demanded that it never be performed again – a judgement he subsequently described as “rash”.
By omitting the character of Sly in Shakespeare’s Induction, Porter and writers Samuel and Bella Spewack denied themselves a potential get out of jail free card. Nevertheless, one can but marvel at the masterful balance of musicality, lyricism and narrative unfolding, front of stage and backstage, in actor/producer Fred Graham’s (Norman Bowman) touring production of the play.
In 2008, Armagh director Conall Morrison offered up a famously uncompromising interpretation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, (with Michelle Gomez & Stephen Boxer, pictured below) whose violence was filtered through the lens of Sly’s drunken fantasising. It split critical opinion right down the middle, but by opting to incorporate the Induction scene – which some directors pass by – Morrison endowed his reading with a logical, if shocking, rationale.
In his February 2009 commentary on the production for the Guardian, Mark Espiner wrote: “It is with a certain amount of discomfort that you engage your critical faculties with Shakespeare’s sexist, misogynist ‘comedy’ The Taming of The Shrew … for many Bard boffins, it is a troublesome play that celebrates domestic violence as Petruchio forces his ‘shrew’ Katharina to submit to his chauvinist world.”
NIO director Walter Sutcliffe also opts to tackle its content head on, whip cracking, fists flying. But, for all the fizz and sparkle and musical magic, the male-inflicted punishment meted out upon Lilli/Katherine in the first act leaves a distinctly queasy feeling.
Sensibilities apart, this is a deft, beautifully realised and sung production. Sutcliffe creates its own fantasy-flavoured prologue, via a trio of flirty showgirls (Jolene O’Hara, Brigid Shine and Maeve Byrne) and a television screen in Fred’s dingy lodgings, which wordlessly introduces the faces of Trump, Epstein, Johnson, Farage. At the end of the cleverly skewed second act, a chastened, downcast Fred is in imminent danger of joining their dubious company.
Leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Melle Stewart) and Fred’s marital discord (echoing the on-stage/off-stage battling of husband and wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during their 1935 production – and, indeed that of the Spewacks themselves) comes alive when they morph into their Shakespearean alter egos, Katherine and Petruchio, their voices blending perfectly in all their big duets.
Jayne Wisener’s Lois – Shakespeare’s Bianca – is a coquettish baby doll, bringing a sharp Betty Draper vibe to her knowing performance and running rings around her sappy gambler husband Bill (Jack McCann).
Matthew Cavan and Richard Croxford are outstanding among the support roles, with Croxford doing a sprightly turn as a randy old US general and Cavan exploding out of the interval with a dazzling delivery of Too Darn Hot.
Conor Mitchell’s delicious orchestrations add light and shade, subtle mood and period details to the pin-sharp narrative, with the tambourines and tabors of the Elizabethan settings whisking us right back into Shakespeare’s own world. Meanwhile the perky ensemble cast, complete with Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin’s comic cut-out mobsters, navigate the fast-moving set and lighting changes without putting a foot wrong.
This is the third co-production between two of Northern Ireland’s leading companies. It is becoming a great way of kicking off a new year of performance, musical and theatrical.
An edited version of this review was first published in The Stage on 6 February 2020.