Set play

16th February 2001 at 00:00
The Taming of the Shrew, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

After being sharply criticised over the past 30 years by feminists for its patriarchal attitudes, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has the reputation of being one of his most controversial plays.

Set in Italy, it is a comedy about marriage. Because their father refuses to marry off his beautiful daughter, Bianca, until his "shrewish" daughter, Kate, has wed, Bianca's suitors bet Petruchio that he cannot woo Kate. To win themoney, Petruchio "tames" Kate by doing theopposite of what she expects, until she submits.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson has updated the play by changing its introductory scene, which in the original features a drunken Christopher Sly being fooled by noblemen into thinking he's a lord. Specially written by veteran playwright Snoo Wilson for this production, the new first scene aims to reproduce the effect of the original, "which was full of images that would have been familiar to Elizabethan audiences, a contrast to what comes after", Kaut-Howson says. "I wanted to recreate that impact of familiarity by setting my induction in modern Manchester," which contrasts with the Italian setting of the story of Petruchio and Kate.

She agrees that "it's not a politicall correct play, and has a crust of prejudice that's grown up around it. For sure, Shakespeare didn't care about being correct or incorrect." He was, however, "fascinated by what makes relationships grow, what makes people attracted to each other. How relationships start - that's what the play is about; it's not about wife-bashing."

It shows how "a relationship develops through conscious confrontation, rather than being just a blind falling in love." It's "not only about love, but about marriage and how you forge a partnership". At the end, Kate's speech of submission is sometimes played ironically, but Kaut-Howson suggests that "maybe irony is not the only key. My feeling is that the play simply takes it for granted that woman is subservient, but doesn't promote theidea."

As in all Elizabethan plays, "there is a strong sense of hierarchy, with God, the prince and men placed in a distinct and natural order". As the context of the play is "the values of the Elizabethan world, the costume of our production will reflect that". The play "is still relevant because there are still men and women". But, above all, it is a comedy "in which Shakespeare explores the comic form".

Aleks Sierz

From February 28 to April 14. Tickets: 0161 833 9833

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