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Rachael Stirling has always struck me as a technician-actor: she has an impressive range and precision of acting devices for someone not yet 30 years of age, but I never lose the sensation that every expression, gesture, cadence is being deliberately deployed at exactly that point. When something occurs as casual as brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes, as occasionally on the press night of The Taming of the Shrew, it breaks the spell for me because it seems so at odds with the detail of everything else.
Despite all this, Stirling’s performance as Kate is one of the most natural in Nick Hutchison’s production. All his patrician characters drawl effetely, and only the veteran Philip Voss knows how to convey character in this mode. Oliver Chris seems to have been directed to deliver every one of Petruchio’s lines in the knowingly declamatory style of, say, Duff Man from The Simpsons: “Duff Man’s gonna tame that Katherine . . . oh, yeah!” These excesses diminish after the interval, largely because by this stage Hutchison is failing to find a coherent take on the play’s central problem. He wants Kate and Petruchio to end as knowing, loving equals, but he also wants Kate to be taught a genuine lesson, though not to have been utterly ground down by Petruchio’s various outrages. There are one or two touching moments, such as when Chris brings a fatigue, even a sadness, to Petruchio’s command that the light in the sky “shall be moon, or star, or what I list” as far as Kate is concerned. But the psychological route from his various “conditioning techniques” to their final informed harmony is not clear, and in any case his performance style thus far has been far too annoying for the viewer to want to put in much effort.
For no obvious reason, sportswear figures largely in the look of the production: Petruchio arrives for his wedding in jockey’s silks, Kate first appears in casual sweats and servant Grumio wears a number of outfits with his name as a player across his back; plaudits to Adrian Schiller in the role, who instead of standard comic-manservant shtick deadpans his way through in a voice that might be called Essex sepulchral.
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