© 2005 John Murphy
From the back of the box: “John Cleese stars in Shakespeare’s comedy about a spoiled brat who meets her match and her mate — all rolled into one heck of a pugnacious package. Sweet-natured Bianca can’t marry until her quick-tempered sister, Katherine, does. Intent on marrying Bianca, Lucentio assumes his servant’s identity and poses as her tutor. Meanwhile, cantankerous Petruchio is convinced he can tame the shrewish older sister, marry her and inherit the family riches.”
These BBC productions are always hit-and-miss. Slapped together in a matter of weeks as part of an ambitious project in the early Eighties to film all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays, the production values are invariably shoddy and the staging by and large ploddingly unimaginative. Some adaptations fare better than others (Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet, also directed by Jonathan Miller, is a highlight of the series), but all are uniformly low-budget affairs with flimsy cardboard-looking sets and hand-me-down costumes — the design of this one stealing shamelessly from Vermeer, though attractively so. That said, the alchemy of a game troupe of actors can turn base metal into solid gold entertainment, and The Taming of the Shrew offers one of the BBC series’ more impressive efforts.
Casting Monty Python veteran John Cleese as the cranky Petruchio sets a welcome “anything goes” tone for the production. Lowbrow physical comedy takes a backseat to lowbrow bawdy wordplay. The acting excels across-the-board. Often in these BBC versions there’s a kind of half-life of performance quality from the leads down to the satellite characters. Here, however, Cleese’s intelligent and entertaining reading is matched by a vivacious and beautiful Katherine, played by Sarah Badel (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Julianne Moore). Their “merry war of wit,” recalling Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, offers some very memorable one-liners (Petruchio’s punchline, “my tongue in your tail?” always gets a good laugh).
Actors in supporting parts are eccentric and clearly having fun. I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Cecil’s lisping and limp-wristed Hortensio, Anthony Pedley’s affected send-up of a proper Italian gent, and John Franklyn-Robbins as the beleaguered Baptista, a father of two energetic daughters and a character whom I’m sure resonates with many a gray-haired dad forced to put up with the unpredictable emotional highs and lows of those puzzling creatures, girls. It’s a compliment to the production that I had a grin on my face the entire time and occasionally laughed-out-loud. When the actors are having a blast, it’s hard not to be won over despite the distractingly chintzy sets.
Shakespeare’s wholehearted endorsement of a patriarchal society through the submission of Katherine put a bee in the bonnet of my girl-power little sis (who could, admittedly, beat me at arm wrestling). Yes, Katherine’s final speech would bring a tear of joy to the eye of any self-respecting misogynist, but I like to think that Katherine and Petruchio are putting one over on the friends and in-laws. That’s the beauty of Shakespeare: how you interpret his plays say more about you than about the playwright. He’s bigger than all of us.