It seems reality TV fans are getting very excited this week at the prospect of a The Only Way Is Dalston show, so it's good timing for director Robin Norton-Hale and designer Cherry Truluck's decision to set The Taming of the Shrew in that world of a busy local market populated by hipsters. So Dave Fishley's Baptista owns a shop selling, by the looks of it, pretty much everything; his daughters' suitors have ironic non-prescription glasses perched on their noses, and coke going up them. I'm not a fan of the play but am always interested to see how people deal with the problems that make it so unacceptable to a modern audience. Productions tend to either imply that Katherine is not quite as subjugated as she seems, or to bring the misogyny into even sharper relief. The last Shrew I saw went for the latter approach to such an extent it left you feeling positively dirty afterwards; Norton-Hale goes for completely the opposite approach. Simon Darwen and Elexi Walker's very good Petruchio and Katherine are very clearly, genuinely taken by each other on their first meeting, her objections merely face-saving. His swagger is as much a cover for insecurity as her apparent shrewishness and once they're married, his "torture" of her seems little more than a bit of role play, punctuated by them running off excitedly to the bedroom together. Rather than terrorising her into calling the sun the moon this becomes their private language, a joke they can confound others with.
This does actually work very well for the majority of the play but the (admittedly, pretty impossible) final scene is where things get stuck. The only real sign of the old misogyny is in Baptista's tears of joy at his daughter's apparent transformation into a compliant puppet, but while Katherine and Petruchio are happy with each other, it comes at the price of being pretty obnoxious to everyone else: She may be in on the joke, but her sister, whom she earnestly tells to subjugate herself completely, isn't. Very much the smug hipsters, they're not a couple you'd invite to a social gathering again, although at least they wouldn't care. The play's bitter edge comes instead from Simone James' spikier-than-usual Bianca (Norton-Hale having noticed, in her programme notes, that for a sweet little innocent she's really rather adept at teasing her many suitors) and Will Featherstone's adorable Lucentio, whose relationship has been great fun to watch develop over the course of the play, but which comes crashing down at the wedding reception when he unwisely bets on his new wife's obedience. The production throws in a bit of a Merchant of Venice twist here as well, having him gamble away his wedding ring. Elsewhere we've got one of this year's popular Shakespearean memes of a character getting a sex change, although Sarah Winn's Grumio has not had quite as confident a transformation as some - her lines haven't been gender-swapped; while Simon Ginty's Tranio is likeable and ludicrously attractive. I did, at times, find that Sebastian Willan's sound design was a bit too loud, the street noises and a ticking clock sometimes crossing the line from "setting the scene" to "distracting from the dialogue." The production takes a little while to get warmed up but once it does there's plenty of laughs there, even if at the end we're left with one loved-up but insular and unlikeable couple, and a more likeable pair whose marriage seems doomed from the start. A valiant effort but ultimately the hardest thing to tame remains the play itself.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is booking until the 29th of October at Southwark Playhouse.