Old Vic, 19 February 2013
I Hate Men, Lilli-as-Kate's song from Kiss Me, Kate, sung by Patricia Morison in 1958.
An impressive production and cast makes the most of this musical, but cannot disguise its damaging indulgences.
The Taming of the Shrew is not the greatest example of Shakespeare’s genius. But it retains more life than Cole Porter’s work, which seems dated just 50 years after it was written.
Admittedly, the English dramatist can seem disturbingly misogynistic in this work, but the key to countering that impression is that Kate is both superior to Petruccio and in love with him at first sight.
On this view, it is the social imprisonment of women that the poet exposes, and one problem with updating the scenario as done here is that even in the 1930s women had much greater rights than in Tudor England.
Thankfully the book by Bella and Sam Spewack retains some of the sense that women choose beneath them. It also retains the bard’s healthy disrespect for mere plausibility. And so it is a relatively effective abridgement of the Shrew.
But the contemporary framing device, far from making Shakespeare ‘relevant’, is fairly weak. Quarrelling actors are just too cute. As we know everyone on stage is acting at one or two removes, the distancing effect is distracting rather than enlightening (post-modernism avant la letter?)
Worse, sometimes the implausibility is stretched too far by the updated setting. Not only is there no doubt that Lilli will return to Fred, but in the event it is so implausibly sentimental that even Trevor Nunn cannot direct the scene to make it effective.
Some of Porter’s lyrics, and most of his tunes, keep things deftly afloat.
Even here, there are problems, and I found them the worst problems in the piece. It is easier to forgive some tuneful additions that don’t advance the plot, such as Too Darn Hot; the real sins are the indulgent rhymes of Brush Up on Your Shakespeare and Bianca.
The cast is great, and mostly manage to sound from the US even if they aren’t (though I prefer actors in their natural accents).
A seemingly endless supply of enthusiastic, energetic and talented singing actors can be found for London musicals, and as usual everyone was very good. Perhaps some authentic yankee pep might have been necessary to lift the drama out of its doldrums. Only Adam Garcia, in a relatively unimportant role, seemed to possess this quality.
Special mention should go to Hannah Waddingham’s versatile voice. Her I Hate Men was the lasting highlight in a lively but unaffecting evening.