A man called Kate;Set plays;Theatre
When the Illyria company's actors trooped on stage to take an opening bow I fully expected the tall girl with the striking features to be playing Kate, the fearsome Shrew who is about to be tamed by Petruchio. She does look the part.
Yet when fiery Kate does make her entrance she is clearly being played by a bloke, a bloke in a frock, a bloke with shoulders any ambitious middle-weight boxer would be proud of.
Oliver Gray, the director of The Taming of the Shrew, explains: "Kate and Petruchio's story is a play within a play, and most of the characters within their play are pretending to be other people. We're emphasising all of that by having virtually everyone in the induction scene playing their own sex and in the play within the play they are playing the opposite sex. They are not 'dragging', or 'dame-ing' it up, but it is obviously a man playing a woman or the reverse."
He has just five actors, two men and three women, to play 20 parts. Confusing? Certainly not. Characters are clearly defined, accents are precise, clothing and movement are helpfully distinct. Five actors seem to hold the attention better than 20, probably because the audience is focused on each actor. It helps, Gray says, when the characters are not deep and the Shrew's dramatis personae are hardly three dimensional.
The pace is lively though not frantic, dialogue is briskly spoken and there are no languid moments. Surprisingly, the language blossoms and the often complex plot is easy to follow.
Shakespeare's text remains intact but there is much additional humour of the knockabout variety and some modern references are slipped in. A maid asks "Dost thou love pictures?" and she adopts the voice and manner and specs of Sister Wendy.
Kate is a shrew and she is tamed by a dominant man. What about the usual charges of political incorrectness?
"I don't think we should judge Shakespeare by the values of the late 20th century", says Gray.
He attaches great importance to Kate's final speech when she seems to be promoting a subservient role for all married women.
"There is almost certainly a great deal of irony involved", says Gray. "The women she is addressing are very unpleasant human beings so why should we take it literally? What Kate is really promoting is an equal relationship, a relationship of roles. There is the going out and earning a living and there is the looking after the home. The two roles have equal importance."
Kate is the one sensible character in the play, thinks Gray. She is the one audiences will identify with. She is direct and honest.
'The Taming of the Shrew' is touring until mid-September. For details, tel: 01789 751017; or fax: 01789 750229.