"... the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon..."
What better way to while away a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, than in possibly London's finest park, enjoying certainly Britain's finest open air theatre - an annual birthday tradition of the family, to savour a picnic and a play amid the lushness of Regents Park.
Never mind that The Taming Of The Shrew is up there with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night in the trilogy of Shakespeare plays I must have seen most often - dozens and dozens of times, indeed, although maybe it just seems that way thanks to extended school and university studies of each one.
Or simply the repeated enjoyment of Kiss Me, Kate - not the middling BBC sitcom starring Caroline Quentin and the not-yet-infamous Amanda Holden and Chris Langham, but the perfect confection of Cole Porter, alongside the below-mentioned Cabaret a contender for the oh-so-prestigious "Aidan's Favourite Musical" award, time immemorial...
The Shrew is, and indeed was again today, a delight - this one set in 1930s small-village Italy, with incidental Godfather Waltz-esque music (frequent viewings and reviewings of Michael Corleone's trips to Sicily were clearly essential research for the producers), smart-casual rags, the piled coils of women's hair, and the floppy fringes of their sloppy suitors... At times it seemed this was a Shrew with the volume turned down lower than usual: Sirine Saba as Katherina was a good deal less fearsome and freakish, shrill and shriekish than in some other portrayals, even a little frumpy in comparison to winsome Sheridan Smith as Bianca - the most familiar face on stage thanks to her roles as Anthony's girlfriend in The Royle Family and less-loved central characters in Grown-Ups and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Chips. Yet though she threw in a few good facial expressions, petulant frowns here, coquettish simpering there, she was too often just too inaudible - and too bland.
Luckily John Hodgkinson as Petruchio was as dominant as an audience would want and expect. He was a brilliantly incomprehensibly army officer - among other parts - in the same stage's production of Oh! What A Lovely War a few years ago, and the stern military bearing and bravado was here again apparent. But there was a little added depth as he combined tales of his recent martial swashbuckling with a black mourning sash around his arm and moments of reserve as he noted his father's recent passing - or took sudden swigs from his hipflask before facing the shrew he was to tame, not entirely from mere drunkenness, but for strength and self-support...
I think when I discussed the play in a rambling university essay, I followed a predictably right-on student line as to the jarring sexism of the ending, yet I suspect that was merely because it felt the easiest argument to make at the time. In fact, the sheer lengthiness and over-indulgence (and self-abasement) of Katherina's "I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war where they should kneel for peace" speech just doesn't seem to bear much of a serious moral code when acted out in front of you. Petruchio's eventual response, "Why, there's a wench - now come on and kiss me, Kate!" suggests he is as admiring of Katherina as she at last is of him - and this production really does emphasise the affectionate, affecting love story that does develop between the pair, albeit from rickety, raucous beginnings. The simple choreography of the final moments, as they trip off to bed to the dazed wonder of the wedding party, then finally emerge above in a delicate embrace - this was love with a light and tender touch after all.
Now, where can I find me one of those myself...?
Petruchio's final sign-off line was one of many moments when, thanks to the Cole Porter play, my musical-enjoying mind was half-expecting a melodic flourish to kick in - as when Petruchio earlier declared "I've come to wive it wealthily in Padua", or the very first lines of this Christopher Sly-less production: "Signor Baptista...!" / "Gentlemen, importune me no farther,/For how I firmly am resolved you know;/That is, not bestow my youngest daughter/Before I have a husband for the elder..."
Except this time there was no sighs from Bianca of "Ah, me..." as a cue into the joyous "Tom, Dick and Harry", one of several songs from the show to have quite stunningly arch levels of filthy innuendo... Especially for a 1948 original, anyway. (See also "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", eg "If she says your behaviour is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus"/"If your baby is pleading for pleasure, let her sample your Measure for Measure"/and so one-track-mindedly on...)
The 1953 film version of Kiss Me, Kate - starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller - was ruthlessly, prudishly cut to avoid giving any offence, hacking these wonderful songs in half. I much prefer the straight-up film of the 1999 West End rival, when Rachel York in particular is frighteningly extravagant and raw, certainly so in the beautiful-melody/truly-curs'd-tongued-lyrics of "I Hate Men" ("If thou shouldst wed a businessman: be wary, oh be wary - he'll tell you he's detained in town on business necessary [derisive cackle] - his business, is the business, which he gives his sec--re--ta--ry...")
In rather stark contrast, I reviewed a semi-am-dram production at the Worthing Pavilion Theatre a few years ago which was predictably, if still disappointingly much, much inferior. It would have helped had the two female leads not been notably (or at least, apparently) about 15 years elder than their male counterparts. And had the Lilli Vanessi/Katherina character not delivered the above song as if it was titled not "I Hate Men", but "I Occasionally Feel Just The Mildest Bit Miffed By Men". Overall, for such a racy play, the stolid citizens of West Sussex produced a Kiss Me, Kate which was just "Too Darn... Tepid".
Today's show had its slight disappointments, the two female leads' mildly-underwhelming performances aside. For such a lovely setting, always an evening joy for pre-performance picnicking and post-show guttering-candlelight lingering, the matinee slot seems a more rushed affair. This meant doors to the theatre area were not opened until half-an-hour before the start, forcing all to squat with their picnics outside (albeit still, er, in the wider park, of course...) Then, no-one was allowed to stop afterwards for a coffee but be rudely, rushedly ushered out onto the streets by the stewards... Oh, and by far the most annoying were the incessant blasts of live music from an Australian festival elsewhere in the park, strangely suddenly rising and falling in volume as if someone kept on opening a door, but still causing quite an irritating intrusion into such a well-established (and expensive) fixture as the theatre... Maybe a case for at least cutting the price of matinee, as opposed to evening, tickets to take such circumstances into account...
Ah, but anyway - the on-stage vim of this Regent's Park production is a reasonable restorative, albeit without, of course, the gangsters, songs and risque lyrics. Just risque blank verse from that Bard of Stratford-on-Avon himself.
"Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now,
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow..."
Or else, of course, "kill a wife with kindness" - or alternatively, "curb her mad and headstrong humour".
Hmm - so...
Back to the First Folio I should go...