The Taming of the Shrew at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
A play within a play, wrought with more playing. Maria Gaitanidi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic is self-conscious, a delightful collaboration between ensemble and audience and a performance complete in its incompleteness. Gaitanidi did well to centre The Taming of the Shrew around its meta-theatrical elements. The play’s inherent misogyny may be out of place in the present day, but its palimpsest of illusion does what theatre does best: probing the boundaries of reality.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the performance. An actor breaks role, praying that her candle stays alight, before swiftly leaping into character, picking at an audience member and dissolving the fourth wall. The drunk, to be made a fool out of, now makes a fool out of us, stripping off his layman’s clothes and emerging from the audience – part actor, part character and part audience member.
One player took on the role of director, calling out to her ensemble, interjecting just when we were starting to fall for the illusion, reminding us that this is a play of plays. She masterly accompanied a drunk audience member out as if he, too, were a part of her game, a commendable improvisation which left me wondering – was he a ruse or did he just really hate Shakespeare?
The actors have no set role and impressively know every part as if it was their only one, ready to play a different character each night. Tonight’s set was rather conventional: women played women, men played men and the comic’s thick Italian accent was surely unfit for any other role. But the chemistry between them was unbreakable; they moved as one, each actor a vital organ working together to keep the performance alive.
Moments of improvisation aren’t short, and never jibe at the disappointingly misogynistic plot. Still, the actors stay faithful to their context and only play with deception and illusion, leaving the strictly enforced gender roles untouched. Perhaps, during another performance, the issue will be revisited through cross-dressing.
This is a play where it doesn’t matter if the actors crack a smile, laugh at each other’s comedy or enjoy their own performance. When they slip up, we are complicit; when they master a line, we make it happen. This is a play where audience participation is more than mandatory – it is vital to the poignancy of the meta-theatrical illusion.
Photos: Johan Persson
The Taming of the Shrew is at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 8th February until 18th April 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Tony Bell speak about acting in the show here: