United Kingdom Kurt-Heinz Stolze (after Domenico Scarlatti), The Taming of the Shrew: A Birmingham Royal Ballet production to the choreography of John Cranko, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Wolfgang Heinz (conductor). Birmingham Hippodrome, 16.6.2016. (GR)
Katherina: Elisha Willis
Petruchio: Iain Mackay
Bianca: Jenna Roberts
Lucentio: Brandon Lawrence
Hortensio: Chi Cao
Baptista: Jonathan Payn
Music: Kurt-Heinz Stolze
Choreography: John Cranko, staged by Jane Bourne
Designs: Susan Benson
Lighting: Steen Bjarke
Birmingham Royal Ballet continue their contribution to the West Midlands’ Our Shakespeare celebrations, beginning their 2016 Summer Season with The Taming of the Shrew seen at their Hippodrome home. It was a rip-roaring success! Ballets centred round any play of Shakespeare must be loosely based and this one to the choreography of John Cranko is no exception. In view of its rapturous reception, it is surprising it has not been staged by BRB since the 1980s. Tut! Tut! As well as verbal wit, Shrew has much physical comedy, an angle that Cranko exploits brilliantly and to the full in his adaptation. He does make global changes: gone are the characters of Lucentio’s man Tranio and his father Vincentio, the Pedant and the Widow, essentially replaced by a couple of whores and an innkeeper. And the plot is condensed, but cleverly so, regarding the omission of the Induction, the tutorials of Bianca and the dowry settlements. All this streamlines the narrative, allowing the comedic action and battle between the sexes to flourish over two acts and eleven scenes.
Proceedings get off to a bright start with a brief overture in the traditional quick/slow/quick practice of baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, upon whom Kurt-Heinz Stolze based his score. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under guest conductor Wolfgang Heinz and regular leader Robert Gibb, were in sparkling form and in carnivalesque mood, setting the scene of ‘fair’ Padua perfectly. The first scene introduces us to a merry band of suitors, reminiscent of stock commedia dell’arte personalities: the zanni of Chi Cao ever the acrobatic fool that is Hortensio; the zanni/vecchi of Rory Mackay, character-actor supreme as the roué Gremio, the inamorati of Brandon Lawrence, zany but dashing with it as Lucentio. Each are extravagantly dressed (fine costumes from Susan Benson) sporting a mandolin and hoping to catch the eye of the maiden on the inevitable balcony (shades of Romeo or even Coppélia).
As the intrepid threesome shift to a tavern hosted by Valentin Olovyannikov, they meet up with the braggadocio/inamorati of Iain Mackay, who as Petruchio promptly succeeds to literally and metaphorically lose the shirt off his back to a couple of prostitutes, leaving him with only a garter around his right biceps. The trio of would-be wooers see this penniless Adonis as the answer to their prayers and strike a pact – he should court and wed Katherina and so comply with her father Baptista wishes that the elder daughter must marry ahead of the younger, Bianca, their target. May the best man win the ingénue!
Back at Baptista’s house, Jenna Roberts as Bianca decides in a dreamy solo that from the three gifts proffered by her suitors, she prefers the rose of Lucentio, he will be her Rosenkavalier. Elisha Willis as Katherina now lives up to her reputation as Kate the cursed, snatching the rose and venting her spite on it and the other two gifts (a fan and a glove), before her tantrums extend to Roberts herself, trading blows as two alley-cats, only to be separated by an exasperated father (Jonathan Payn). Undeterred by Katherina’s reputation, Petruchio asks the question of Baptista, but when he tells her he is ‘moved to woo thee for my wife’ and compares her to a wasp ‘with my tongue in your tail’, Katherina gives him a right hook. Disguise is a prominent theme within Shakespeare (including Shrew) and Cranko employs it here when the trio pursuing Bianco arrive in turn to give her music lessons. First is Gremio who mistakenly thinks singing is his trade, Mackay and the Sinfonia warbling aimlessly. Hortensio fayres little better on the mandolin. Lucentio turns out to be a proficient teacher of dance, an art Bianca can be in tune with, and Roberts and Lawrence give a graceful pas de deux; as with the bard, Lucentio has read the Art of Love, mimicking Bianca’s words from the play ‘And may you prove, sir, master of your art!’ to which he responds ‘While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart!’ Lawrence is encouraged with a peck. Katharina throws another spanner in the works to break their blissful moment. More sparring between Kate and Petruchio follows in accordance with Shakespeare’s ‘where two raging fires meet together’, symbolised with a scorching, highly physical pas de deux. Mackay pledges his love (see pic) and also gets a kiss, much to Willis’ chagrin.
The BRB corps de ballet assemble in the street for the forthcoming nuptials with a jolly ensemble number, complemented by further high jinks from Messrs Chi Cao, Mackay and Lawrence. Willis shows the ‘taming’ is far from complete as she is dragged to the altar to be ‘madly mated’ by the priest (Olovyannikov again) hardly the ‘’prettiest Kate in Christendom’, a scene that is pure slapstick, with Cranko’s movement continuing to explicitly convey story and feelings. Because this shrew is still unbridled Petruchio actions say ‘I am rough and woo not as a babe’; the honeymooning pair miss the wedding breakfast.
The music that opens Act II is a particularly good example of how Stolze is in tune with the humour of the stage events, as the newlyweds journey to Petruchio’s home; the violent storm (lit by Steen Bjarke) has Willis hanging on for grim death to the horse’s halter, her drenched state of little concern to Mackay. Any respite for this Cinders from the embers in the huge old kitchen hearth are soon annulled by the master quenching both the fire and any desire for marriage consummation!
Meanwhile in Padua, Cranko gives Lucentio a cunning plan, involving more disguises, to lay his path clear to Bianca: Hortensio and Gremio are independently deceived into believing the two masked whores they are escorting are Bianca, the object of their dreams. Having both tied the knot, the revelations as the truth dawns on each of them is priceless theatre. The interweaving corps de ballet and smiling audience join in the fun.
Still being denied sustenance, Kate’s misery continues, but Petruchio is full of beans with his ‘Good Morrow, Kate’. Another sumptuous Cranko pas de deux follows with dramatic lifts and for the first time a beaming Willis, true love is finally in the air. After their calorie appetites are sated, the return journey is in vastly different vein to the arrival, even the inanimate horse seems happier! Although they are not joined by Lucentio’s father as in Shakespeare, there is a final trial for Kate, one she passes with honours: because her husband says so, the shining ‘sun’ is now dubbed ‘moon’ or as Shakespeare pens ‘… be it moon, or sun, or what you please. / And if you please to call it a rush candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me’.
Just as Shakespeare emphases the relationships between men and their wives in the final scene, so does this production. While it is clear the future for Petruchio and Kate is solid, that for Lucentio, Hortensio and Gremio is not so certain. Their partnerships are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘We four are married, but you three are sped’. The rapturous couple enact the immortal line ‘Kiss me, Kate’ before retiring to bed. Whether Cranko thought the audience should go home completely happy or otherwise, all four couples in the traditional finale seem full of the joys of spring. This was a five star show!
This being one of Elisha Willis’ final appearances for BRB – she retires at the close of this season – she leaves on a high and will be sorely missed. Bouquets also for Jane Bourne, who dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s for the dancers. After further commemorations of Shakespeare next week at Hippodrome, the company take their Shrew to Bristol, 29th June – 2nd July.