Kiss me, Kate (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)
Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 1987
The Royal Shakespeare Company has now decided to offer us a musical extravaganza loosely related to one of the plays. Nothing new in that, its detractors will claim; and indeed its younger supporters might have been forgiven for thinking they were watching the company's latest version of The Taming of the Shrew, instead of the 1948 Cole Porter musical on that theme. This production no doubt aims at a long and profitable London run, like its predecessor Les Miserables; and it will appeal to any audience that would rather be wowed than wooed. It is just as sensuously and physically assaulting as any Petruchio or Kate; some of the orchestral effects are not unlike having a musical instrument broken over one's head. Conversely, as we have come to expect from the designer William Dudley, the sets are a sustained delight to the eye. The story-tine of real-life love, rivalry and intrigue among Shakespearean actors touring their Italian play through the American provinces is brilliantly symbolized by scenic contrast between backstage realism and caricaturedcommedia dell'arte.
There, however, the explanations end. Even the programme is so preoccupied with spoof and send-up, period parody and pastiche, that it omits to offer any coherent account of the show's complex plot and structure. Yet Kiss Me, Kate is likely to be unfamiliar to most theatregoers; indeed, its spoken style sounds the far more dated than the Shakespearean material it borrows. I think the book (by Sam and Bella Spewack) should have been treated with far more simplicity and restraint, as in the Nicholas Nickleby presentation of the Crummleses’ travelling theatre company and its interactions with real life. There too we are meant to wonder which is which. At Stratford, all's one. The entire stage and pit repeatedly explode into undifferentiated pandemonium, too often rearranged beyond recognition as well as amplified beyond endurance. Even with the whole cast wired for sound, the witty lyrics are sometimes inaudible among the general uproar.
But Porter's work belongs more in Covent Garden than in the discotheque. We hear his show-stoppers only when that sort of show has stopped. His standards prevail as soon as attention is focussed on it small group instead of the total troupe, and the original score is allowed to speak and sing for itself in all its relaxed and sinuous felicity. Such moments are rare pleasures, in every sense. "Tom, Dick or Harry" goes with an authentic swing; but Fiona Hendley (Lois/Bianca) is too talented an artist to need any hint of Marilyn Monroe impressions. Paul Jones is in vigorously virile form and voice as the heroic shrew-tamer; but I feel that his pop-star style is misplaced if not miscast. In general the ceaseless bustle of business leaves little time for the playfully erotic tenderness that suffuses the songs and choruses. Too many of the tempi are in hectic overdrive; "Wunderbar", for example, is anything but, while "Too Damn Hot" quite loses its cool.
Whenever the work is shown the respect due to a masterpiece of its genre it responds with genuine warmth, and so does the audience. Nichola McAuliffe leads the way in this direction, like a real star. She can vary her vocal colouring and characterization so compellingly that "I Hate Men" and "So In Love" sound equally persuasive; her final song of submission in the dual guise of Shakespeare Kate and the actress Lull Vanessi is a triumph of interpretation. Tim Flavin's dancing Lucentio is lithely synchronized “with a nice bounce”, as stipulated; among much individual musicianship the solo violin phrases are quietly eloquent. Thanks to Emil Wolk and John Bardon as the two self-improving gangsters, the concluding Tempo di Bowery waltz song goes especially well. For a good half-hour after the show, home-going hums of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” were heard along the streets of Stratford; that would have pleased the Bard.