Setting Shakespeare’s comedy of marital hijinx in early 1970s rural Ireland produces unexpectedly rich theatrical dividends for director Lynne Parker and her superb acting company in this Rough Magic production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The depiction of small-town life as hypocritical, greedy and spiritually empty has become a commonplace of contemporary Irish theater and film — think “The Field,” “This Is My Father” and all of Martin McDonagh’s plays. But here the setting fits so well that it teases new meanings and resonances out of a well-known text.
Parker’s interpretation shifts the play’s focus radically, away from the battle of the sexes between Kate and Petruchio, toward the overall theme of the lust for ownership and property in rural environments and the role of women as pawns in a hierarchical, male-dominated society. Petruchio’s proclamation that his new bride is “my field, my ox, my ass, my anything” is usually read as yet another attempt to get the upper hand with Kate. Here, it works perfectly as the character’s lording of his new social status and power over the community.
One effect of this approach is to remove the expected focus from Kate, which is ironic given that the actress playing her, Pauline McLynn, is a well-known Irish comedian (“Father Ted”) and doubtless one of the show’s audience draws. Happily, however, McLynn gets the chance here to flex more serious acting muscles; her perf clearly indicates that the source of the character’s nasty temper is repressed rage and despair at being treated as chattel.
The audience sits on both sides of the runway-like stage, creating a very effective intimacy with the performers. We are in the main room of a dingy country hotel; wooden chairs and tables sit atop fabulously tacky linoleum flooring, with two structures on either end representing the kitchen and bar (set and costume designer Monica Frawley is in excellent form).
Baptista, played with lovable irascibility by Barry McGovern, is the hotelier, which gives him status in the community and the ability to sell off his daughters with healthy dowries. Simone Kirby plays Bianca not as the usual pretty innocent, but as a dim-witted opportunist who toys with the affections of all her suitors.
In an excellent second-act scene, Bianca finally embraces her eventual husband, Lucentio, and the explosion of sexual tension is such that she ends up snogging his sidekick Tranio as well, who then shares a hot kiss with Lucentio. This implies quite credibly that homoerotic desire might underline the master-servant relationship (Tadhg Murphy and Rory Keenan play this element particularly well) and underlines the overall repressiveness of the society being described.
Owen Roe is a swaggering delight as Petruchio, getting laughs even before he speaks for his macho shimmy as he enters the bar and surveys the new territory to be conquered. However funny his performance, though, he also gives the impression that the character so lusts for power that he might actually have gone a bit crazy.
McLynn’s downtrodden spinster Kate does fall for him, but has the last laugh with the play’s famously difficult final speech, in which the character appears to have capitulated to her husband’s domination. Here, McLynn allows us to think she believes what she’s saying, until she randomly grabs Keenan as Tranio, kisses him passionately, then keeps going as if nothing has happened. Petruchio seems delighted by this: a bride as reckless as he is.
The detailed evocation of this final country wedding scene is wonderful: a banquet of green grape and cheddar-square toothpick skewers; an old man asleep in the corner; Darragh Kelly’s splenetic Gremio clutching a cup of milky tea as his toupee lists ever more precariously to starboard; half-drunk bottles of whisky everywhere. This scene encapsulates the production’s excellence: The laughter is rich because the social observation is so precise.