Thursday, February 06, 2020

Kiss Me, Kate – men behaving badly while one woman fights back against the shrews (NI Opera and Lyric Theatre until 22 February)

With music and lyrics by Cole Porter and the book by Bella and Sam Spewack, Kiss Me, Kate goes behind the scenes of a musical production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and witnesses one of the principal actors wooing a young starlet while also reengaging with his estranged wife. As the show progresses, the Shakespearean storyline (complete with the Bard’s “woo her, wed her, bed her” line) interplays with the lives of the cast and crew in the theatre.

It’s a show that I remember seeing performed by local operatic companies as a child in venues like the long defunct Harberton Theatre behind the King’s Hall. The stage could swallow up 30 or more performers by the time the minor roles and a chorus line were added to the main cast. Yet this co-production by NI Opera and the Lyric Theatre manage to get through all the acting, singing and dancing with a tight cast of thirteen.

Right from the start, it’s clear that while this is much more musical theatre than opera – there’s a lot of spoken dialogue between songs – the quality of the cast’s singing sets it above what you’d normally expect, and the 12-piece band in the pit under the flamboyant baton of Conor Mitchell inject huge energy into the shenanigans above them. Jennifer Rooney’s snappy choreography creates great shapes out of the small cast and gives the show’s big numbers a lot of visual oomph.

Other than a fitted-out dressing room that sits to one side of the Lyric stage, the set is chunky but simple, always visible sitting in the wings when not needed. It revolves to shift our perspective, though that oddly leaves the dressing room perched in what we would imagine were the front rows of the stalls in one scene. A curtain flies down to emphasise the moments when the cast are on-stage, and a cute theatre sign emphasises the fantasy nature of what we’re watching.

Norman Bowman gives the theatre director and lead actor Fred (playing Petruchio in Taming) a sense of aggression early on that opens the door for his later acts of menace, abuse and assault. Standing up to him across the stage and dressing room is Melle Stewart who plays Lilli and Shakespeare’s Katharine. She portrays a woman whose confidence is evident yet damaged by her previous relationship which was definitely not Wunderbar. And when he appears in person, her new military lover (played by Richard Croxford) turns out to be another mistake waiting to happen with his assertion that “I can make the little woman happy”.

Jayne Wisener’s Lois Lane seems flirty and keen to manipulate her relationship with the director to further her career, yet there’s more than a hint that Fred may be grooming her Weinstein-style. It’s the start of an unsettling #MeToo conversation that inhabited my thoughts during the rest of the show.

In the wings, Fred and his team of scantily clad tinselly angels (Maeve Byrne, Jolene O’Hara and Brigid Shine) recline in an armchair watching this old production, as if a black and white show on late night TV. As a framing device to allow the audience to enjoy the inappropriate behaviour on stage – men are bullies, bums are slapped until one character can’t comfortably sit down – it works some of the time.

For me, it’s definitely a show of two halves. Before the interval, there’s a coherence to the staging, set and sensibility that become much more stretched when we return. Matthew Cavan’s Too Darn Hot is spectacular and memorable, but while it begins among the audience before returning onto the main stage, the context of the cast relaxing in the alley behind the theatre isn’t at all clear, leaving it as a sizzling cabaret number dropped into the rest of the narrative.

In the second half, the already well-established front of house/backstage conventions of the show are complicated with some actors changing in view of the audience and cast members running off one side of the Lyric stage and reappearing at the other side.

Two debt-collecting mobsters – Marty Maguire and Darren Franklin – provide a superbly comic rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare, and their incursion from the world of gambling into theatre is very enjoyable.

But the major conundrum with the second half is whether the conceit holds up and I can still allow myself to believe that I’m inside the head of a horrible man watching abusive power relationships play out without any feeling of remorse. Should such a monster really be rewarded with pity songs … or should the mobsters have finished the job they came to do?!

I’m sure that watching performances as a child in the 1980s I giggled as Kate was carried over the shoulder of Fred, no doubt with her bottom still being slapped as the pair exited stage right. There is a suggestion that Bella Spewack wrote much of the dialogue and that a sense of irony was also deliberately present in The Taming of the Shrew. However, that is backstory audiences will only garner if they devour the programme before the lights go down.

As a production, there’s no doubt about the high quality of the performances. The cast and musicians do huge justice to Cole Porter’s talented songs. Where else would you see and hear 25 professionals on and under the stage giving their all? But I can only imagine how the gender politics and abusive sexism must have been a tension that perplexed and preoccupied director Walter Sutcliffe and the cast throughout rehearsals. It would be a fascinating topic for an after-show discussion.

Audience members sitting passively could become complicit in the on-stage tale. But if theatre is meant to make you think, and opera is meant to heighten situations to make a point, then Kiss Me, Kate could be a very relevant contribution to the ongoing societal shakedown over breaking silence, showing empathy, empowering the vulnerable, and changing attitudes to have zero tolerance for workplace harassment, domestic violence and abuse.

Kiss Me, Kate continues in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 22 February.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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