THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019
Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles. The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series. While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms. Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way. Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.
Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons. The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare. ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general. As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence. He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.
The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course. Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny. In fact, the production is riddled with funny women. There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman. Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action. There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia. This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.
There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark. Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly. A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences. Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.
There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise. This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully. Wonderful.
Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Leave a comment | tags: Amanda Harris, Amelia Donkor, Amy Trigg, Claire Price, Emily Johnstone, Hannah Clark, James Cooney, Joseph Arkley, Justin Audibert, Laura Elsworthy, review, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Ruth Chan, Sophie Stanton, The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare | posted in Review, Shakespeare, Theatre Review
MOUNTAINS: The Dreams of Lily Kwok
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 31st May, 2018
When Helen leaves her native Manchester to work as a lawyer in Hong Kong, she feels out of place, a fraud, an English girl in a Chinese body. She encounters the spirit of her grandmother, but as she was when she was younger. Grandmother Lily is entreated to tell her life story and to pull no punches, with Helen taking on the role of Lily while Lily narrates. Storylines from the past and the present entwine, with Helen and Lily often at odds. Put this way, it may seem confusing but in practice, it isn’t. Director Jennifer Tang maintains clear focus throughout so we’re never wondering who is whom and when is when.
Siu-See Hung is delightful as Helen, with her plain-speaking Mancunian humorously undercutting some of the more melodramatic aspects of Lily’s story. Tina Chiang makes a formidable Lily, but there is warmth behind the austere looks and the anger. Matthew Leonheart gives a powerful performance as the dashing Kwok Chan brought low by his addictions, while Ruth Gibson’s Mrs Woodman develops from colonial racism to genuine warmth for her hard-put-upon maid, Lily. Rina Takasaki brings glossy glamour as cabaret singer Gong, and Minhee Yeo gives a sensitive portrayal of Mrs Lee, a woman desperate for a child. Completing the cast, Andy Kettu has contrasting roles as Helen’s hopeless date and a terrifying Japanese soldier.
In-Sook Chappell’s adaptation of Helen Tse’s novel, Sweet Mandarin, depicts the rich tapestry of Lily’s life, the highs and the many lows, the rough with the smooth, the sweet with the sour. It’s an epic saga, covering decades of Chinese history, including some harrowing war-time scenes. Tang includes many effective ideas to get the story across, like a silk jacket becoming a puppet to represent Lily on her 12th birthday. With Ruth Chan’s original, ethereal compositions, the show has a traditional feel while being bang up-to-date and fresh, as Helen learns of her heritage and finds her place in the modern world.
Funny, touching, endearing and heartrending, there’s a lot packed into the running time and it’s all performed with style and skill by a captivating ensemble. I savoured every flavourful moment.
Tina Chiang and Siu-See Hung
Leave a comment | tags: Andy Kettu, Helen Tse, In-Sook Chappell, Jennifer Tang, Matthew Leonheart, Minhee Yeo, Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok, Rina Takasaki, Ruth Chan, Ruth Gibson, Siu-See Hung, Sweet Mandarin, Tina Chiang | posted in Review, Theatre Review
SNOW IN MIDSUMMER
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 9th March, 2017
Based on a thirteenth century Chinese drama, this new production brings the story of The Injustice to Dou E that Moved Heaven and Earth (no, me neither) bang up to date with a fresh and lively script by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Set in contemporary China with its curious blend of progressive and traditional elements, where a burgeoning capitalist economy vies with pre-Cultural Revolution superstition, the story is a visceral revenge tragedy with supernatural elements that feels at home at the RSC.
Sweet and charming Dou Yi (Katie Leung) returns from the grave as a vengeful spirit seeking justice. It emerges that she was framed for murder and executed by firing squad, her body harvested for organs for transplant operations. Dou Yi seeks retribution and to be laid to rest. Stalking around in a white, long-sleeved gown, Leung cuts a spooky dash, familiar to us from Asian horror films. As the mystery unfolds, we are gripped by the action, not least because of the ghost’s relationship with young Fei-Fei (a remarkable Sophie Wong) in some chilling scenes.
At the centre of the plot is handsome Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, a young entrepreneur, and his handsome boyfriend, handsome Rocket (Andrew Leung). This is the face of a new China but the machinations of the story are rooted in tradition and cultural convention. Andrew Leung is an appealing figure – the recipient of a heart transplant from guess who – but it is Ryan who knocks our socks off, as his life unravels and he takes drastic, final action.
Also excellent is Sarah Lam as Handsome’s former wet nurse, beginning as an amusing character part to a heart-rending (I use the word carefully) participant in the unfolding tragedy. Wendy Kweh cuts an elegant figure as businesswoman Tianyun – there is a message here that the cost of a growing economy is paid by the environment – and much of the humour of the piece stems from the likes of Jonathan Raggett as a sexually frustrated Officer.
Director Justin Audibert blends the contemporary with the traditional in a melting pot of styles, juxtaposing naturalistic playing with more melodramatic posturing. Anna Watson’s lighting uses modern strip-lighting to great effect. A couple of supernatural escorts in animal masks who take the dead to the afterlife epitomise this fusion of the old and the new. Atmospheric music by Ruth Chan is performed live by a tight ensemble – pulsating modern rhythms, traditional Chinese instruments, underscore the action and help to create both the world on the stage and the moods of the scenes.
Engaging from the off, gripping and powerful, this is splendid entertainment and a refreshing glimpse at China’s changing culture. Dou Yi’s story tells us the truth will out, consequences must be answered and this is a compelling metaphor for our treatment of the planet. Mother Nature’s vengeance will be no less savage and complete. Even the show’s title is an indictment of climate change!
Heart on her sleeve: Katie Leung as Dou Yi (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Leung, Anna Watson, Colin Ryan, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Jonathan Raggett, Justin Audibert, Katie Leung, review, Ruth Chan, Sarah Lam, Snow In Midsummer, Sophie Wong, Stratford upon Avon, Swan Theatre, Wendy Kweh | posted in Theatre Review