BWW Review: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Birmingham Royal Ballet, June 2016
In a landmark year packed with Shakespearean productions to celebrate the 400th birthday of the Bard, the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform John Cranko's The Taming of the Shrew for the very first time.
This adaptation is faithful to Shakespeare's source material; three suitors to the beautiful Bianca (Hortensio, Lucentio and Gremio) bribe Petruchio to woo and wed her elder sister, the shrew Katherina. Independent and tempestuous, Katherina finds her match in Petruchio and begrudgingly agrees to marry him.
Domenico Scarlatti's sparkling score is rollicking and boisterous, and full of quirky motives that add depth and character. Music and choreography work in perfect harmony, particularly in the opening scene as Lucentio (Brandon Lawrence) strums his lute with feverish and comic enthusiasm.
Bold bravura and comic physicality are hallmarks of Cranko's choreography, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet have embraced this style wholeheartedly. From her first entrance, Elisha Willis is a powerful, indignant Katherina, with stamping feet, clenched fists and flying leaps. A quick slip belies her absolute physical commitment to this character. So convincing is her performance, she leaves you in no doubt that Katherina could silence anyone with just a glance.
Similarly brilliant is Iain Mackay as Petruchio, who impresses with his powerful leaps and unfailingly confident partnering. He relishes the comedic elements of the choreography, from silly walks to raunchy, swaying hips, which feel surprisingly modern for a ballet made over forty years ago.
Brandon Lawrence is a dashing and princely Lucentio; his magnetic stage presence and stunning elevation mark him out as a rising star in this company. Rory Mackay, always fantastic in character roles, is hilarious as the clownish Gremio.
The entire company impress, tackling Cranko's intricate footwork, physical comedy and beautiful formations with such confidence, exuding a carefree and jolly atmosphere that prevails throughout the production.
Whilst the choreography and the humour feel fresh and modern, the same cannot be said for the storyline. The so-called taming of Katherina makes for uncomfortable viewing. Buttock slapping, forced marriage and food deprivation reduce the admittedly fiery, yet proud and independent Katherina to a submissive doll, who comes dutifully when summoned by a stamped foot. I understand the need to faithfully preserve the beauty and humour of Cranko's choreography, but would advocate some license to reflect contemporary values.
Happily, Cranko's The Taming of the Shrew concludes with an extraordinary pas-de-deux for Petruchio and Katherina which reaffirms equality of the sexes. Cranko gives these two vibrant characters an exciting, physical celebration of their love, which delineates their constant battle between passion and rage. Astonishing lifts appear to defy gravity, and elicit gasps of delight from the audience. Willis and Mackay never tire, with each lift held longer and each leap soaring higher than the last.
Despite an outdated storyline, Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Taming of the Shrew is an electrifying and hilarious production, performed by a company who are on fire at the moment. It is hard to believe that Elisha Willis will be retiring at the end of the season, but she will be remembered for this stunning and masterful performance.