KING LEAR STRATFORD UPON AVON. Royal Shakespeare Company
Lindsay Posner has attempted to solve the problem of staging The Shrew for modern audiences by giving it a twentieth-century framework.
Drunken Christopher Sly surfs the net when he has been duped into believing he is a lord, but comes up with not porn, but an RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew. This is played in full Elizabethan dress with unflinching attention to Elizabethan macho attitudes. The ending returns to the twentieth-century, when the actresses playing Kate (Monica Dolan) and Bianca (Charlotte Randle) can dismiss Sly for what he is. So that's all right then: the play is given its proper due, and we liberated moderns do not need to feel offended.
Well, that was the theory. In practice, Stuart McQuarrie's Petruchio is so sadistic that you can't help wishing Katherine would hurry along to the equivalent of a Tudor women's refuge - presumably a convent - rather than put up with such cruelty. He begins by mercilessly attacking his servant Grumio and that sets the tone for the rest of the performance.
There is no hint that the couple may actually have fallen in love, which is fair enough, but it does leave a sense that the poor woman has merely been brain-washed. She has not learned the lesson that her husband is in control so much as been crushed into submission. Petruchio surely cannot represent the successful male; he needs treatment.
The production will tour widely from Penzance to Sunderland and will certainly fuel discussions about gender politics and how they are skewed by personality.
Yukio Ninagawa's production of King Lear with Nigel Hawthorne as the "foolish, fond old man" was eagerly awaited. The Japanese director is known to favour a spectacular visual style and there are some memorable touches here - a vast set of double doors which fills the back wall of the stage, gorgeous silk kimonos for Goneril and Regan - but other style decisions are less happy. The storm scene has no howling wind, despite the lines saying so, and great rocks hit the stage from a great height. The blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall and Regan is not helped by having "vile jellies" bounce on the floor.
Hawthorne looks swamped by the staging, except in the first scene where he strides in and lounges on his throne, the court flinching at the least sign of displeasure. The Fool, Japanese film star HiroyukiSanada, is mercurial and his lines are clearly spoken, but so carefully that there is none of the banter between him and his master. Lear's relationship with the Fool should be expressed in their sharing of language; here it is transmuted into a gentle, physical, father-son understanding.
Michael Maloney's Edgar stands out from the ruck: first outplayed by his crafty half-brother, he becomes an anguished Poor Tom, mad in the wilderness, and then a credible instrument of vengeance.
If I was, on the whole, disappointed, honesty compels me to report that a whole class of A-level students found the production riveting.
Stratford tickets: 01789 403403Tour details: 01789 403440