THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Royal Shakespeare Company Barbican, then touring.
Lindsay Posner is directing what some would consider the most problematic of Shakespeare's plays for modern audiences. Recent productions have either treated the taming of Katherine, the shrew, as a rather embarrassing joke and gone for broad comedy, or they have tried to put a 20th century gloss on the gender politics. This usually entails Kate giving the audience to understand by expression and body language that her final speech, in which she declares obedience to her husband, Petruchio, is not to be taken at face value; she is, it is implied, still her own person.
Posner is determined to avoid both solutions, although he says that "the only good reason for doing this or any play is if it has cultural or political relevance". The Shrew's thematic content - marriage, class and the nature of power - has, he believes, as strong a resonance for us as it did for Elizabethan audiences. To make this clear without skewing Shakespeare's text, Posner has decided on "two points of reference, to challenge the play in the light of an alienation device". And the device he has chosen could not be more up-to-date.
The play-proper, which deals with Katherine's treatment of her suitors and Petruchio's increasingly cruel attempts to tame his bride, is set within a framework. Christopher Sly, a drunkard, is tricked by a lord into believing that he has slept for 15 years and that he is himself a nobleman for whom some players act out the comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. Posner makes Sly a 20th century drunk who is part of a different social experiment. Left alone with a computer, he expects to discover pornography on the Internet; instead he is inveigled into watching an RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew.
The play-within-the-play will begin on screen and the characters will step out of it, in full Elizabethan dress, as we (and Sly) watch. "It will", says Posner, be played "absolutely straight; it is not farcical, but serious and truthful", so Kate will not, as in some productions, be the only character with a 20th century mind, out of place in her own society. Posner will bring Kate and her sister Bianca on at the end, in modern dress, to send Sly home.
It is, says Posner, the perfect play to be discussed by students. The relationships within the family and between men and women still ring true. "Bianca is in some ways similar to Kate but she has chosen to play the system; in her own way she is as trapped as Kate. We have decided that their mother died having Bianca and that she has replaced her in their father's affections. This has led to estrangement, frustration and anger in Kate. She has been labelled a shrew and has to live up to it.
"The resolution is ambivalent. It's possible Kate falls in love, but the relationship is one of power and her alternative is to be a spinster sewing tapestries. Petruchio's initial motive is purely money, but she becomes a challenge. He tames her as he tames a hawk."
Barbican tickets: 0171 638 8891. Touring details: 01789 296655