Kiss Me, Kate – The Old Vic, until 02 March 2013
Having now seen two productions of Kiss Me, Kate, separated by more than twelve years, what immediately stands out is that it becomes far more rewarding experience if one arrives forearmed with a strong knowledge of The Taming of the Shrew. Cole Porter’s signature touches are mixed with a far more literate concept than would be expected from his back catalogue, and in doing so it becomes a musical that manages to both please and perplex,
Cole Porter thought of Kiss Me, Kate, along with Anything Goes, as one of his two perfect musicals and Trevor Nunn is a man who clearly thinks along similar wavelengths. Having been responsible for the National Theatre’s stunning revivial of Anything Goes in 2003, he also takes the reigns here and displays the assured hand of a man who is as equally at home in musical theatre as he is in Shakespeare. No mean achievement and one that pays dividends in bringing Porter’s screwball reinvention of Shakespeare’s lacerating take on gender politics to life.
Not many musicals stand toe-to-toe with Anything Goes, and not many productions can match Nunn’s revival, which has so far proved to be one of the few great musical moments of the 21st century. It was the last of the great examples of chorus-line choreography, Crazy for You, Top Hat and Singin in the Rain being pale comparisons of the form. It also boasted fine central performances, particularly from John Barrowman as Billy Crocker. And of course it had Cole Porter at his irrepressibly brilliant best.
All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that Kiss Me, Kate is not the equal to Anything Goes. Songs like Wunderbar, Brush Up Your Shakespeare and Kiss Me, Kate are mere shadows of It’s De-Lovely, You’re the Top and Anything Goes. There are occasionally moments where riffs and motifs feel repeated, and parts of We Open in Venice sound like a straight lift from Bon Voyage.
At his best Porter has a verbal dexterity that has only been matched by Stephen Sondheim, a lightness of phrase that can wrap a barb within the most delightful melody and an almost unparelled ability to produce rousing, climaxes that blend dance routines seamlessly with witty lyrics and show-stopping choruses.
Unusually Porter is strongest with the spoken dialogue rather than the music and lyrics. It is without doubt a very intelligent reworking of Shakespeare’s play. There is a level of meta-textual dynamism that is most unexpected from a musical written that was written in 1948 and ran for over 1000 performances. The play presents us with an off-stage version of Kate and Petruchio but also flips the action to show us both faithful, and unfaithful, renditions of the actual Shakespearean parts. Naturally action overlaps between off-stage and on, whilst fictional characters invade the world of the play-within-a-play all the while building to a suitably romantic ending.
To keep everything in order requires nimble feet, Porter throws a large number of balls into the air, and a director needs to be capable of juggling them all while they are aloft. Nunn is more than equal to the task and, unlike the earlier 2001 production that seemed to bow under the weight of its transfer from Broadway and felt every minute of its near three hours, this is light on its feet, easily accessible and blessed with a very malleable set that keeps the action motoring along. The set dressing is a work of art in its own right, and any actual version of The Taming of the Shrew would be blessed to have Robert Jones as their Designer.
Performances are solid across the board but solid only takes you so far with Porter, and luckily in Lilli/Kate, they have a truly exceptional performance from Hannah Waddingham. A rising star that is equally at home with Sondheim, Into the Woods, as with more popular fare, Spamalot and The Wizard of Oz, it is as the eponymous Kate that Hannah may have joined the top tier. It is a blistering fiery performance that meshes a superb voice and solid dancing with strong straight acting and a sense of comedic timing that is essential for capturing Porter’s wit. Her version of I Hate Men is both hilarious and troubling given the context in which it is sung.
Here we run into the serious reservations that I have about the musical – it is with a sense of disquiet that we are to sit through songs entitled ‘I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple’ sung by Lilli or the problematically suggestive ‘Always True To You (In My Fashion). It is true that ‘I Am Ashamed…’ is lifted directly from Shakespeare but what may be played with an ironic inflection in a speech is instead delivered entirely straight. It is troublingly sexist and there is something about the bold, colourful nature of Porter’s songs that makes it feel more discomforting than the original play.
A modern production of The Taming of the Shrew can examine these points and place Petruchio and Katherine on a more equal footing, with the speech itself delivered with an eyebrow firmly raised. However there is much less flexibility in a musical written in such primary colours, and if anything Lilli Vanessi gets a rougher deal. In Shakespeare, Katharina is in-part escaping the overbearing patriarchy of her father, whereas Lilli is already engaged to a stolidly dull type who at least has the virtue of clearly adoring her. She is tricked and humiliated by her ex-partner Fred and, whilst Shakespeare spares Katharina from physical violence, Lilli isn’t nearly so lucky.
If you take the evening as a purely escapist treat then you can hardly fail to be entertained by the interesting set, beautiful costumes, well-choreographed routines, solid cast and a standout lead performance. However you may also find that you also have a nagging voice in the back of your head that slowly gets louder as the play continues to routinely humiliate the sparkiest character in the play and inevitably forces her to end up with her pig-headed, egoist of an ex-partner.