The Taming of the Shrew – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Bristol Hippodrome

On Wednesday, I went to the Bristol Hippodrome to see The Taming of the Shrew performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Firstly a confession. I have never seen a ballet before, unless you count a couple of hours worth on TV. It’s completely outside my experience, not for people like me. I believed you have to have special knowledge to understand what’s going in, or you might look silly. So when I was asked to review this performance, I obviously decided to take someone else who’d never seen a ballet. We are cultural imbeciles, ballet virgins, who also lack detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and classical music. We’re just normal people. So it was a nice surprise to find we were surrounded by other just normal people. I don’t think I saw an ostentatious diamond necklace or monocle anywhere. We weren’t out of place at all. Ballet IS for people like us it seems, because we LOVED this performance.

I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying to assess the technical proficiency of the dancers or the quality of the choreography. I’m definitely not going to give any analysis of the storyline, what with Shakespeare’s work having been around for many years and studied by much, much more knowledgeable minds than mine.

So what can I say? Well, I think the first thing that struck me is the noise that ballet makes. What I’ve never experienced from watching it on TV is the impact of actually hearing the feet striking the stage. It’s odd how much it matters, it’s like seeing a Van Gogh in the flesh with all the layers and depth and real colour compared to seeing a photo of the same thing.  It’s a sound that is used to great effect in some of the scenes in this performance.

Tonight we saw something really truly beautiful. The story is simple enough; Baptista  wants or needs to marry off his older, bad-tempered daughter Katherina before a husband can be found for his fluffier-headed younger girl Bianca. Three suitors come calling and get sent packing; they find a drunk Petruchio in a local inn who is ‘persuaded’ to court Katherina. They end up married, one of the three suitors tricks the other two into marrying whores and then marries Bianca, and eventually everyone ends up happy (albeit with some elements that are a little uncomfortable for a modern women, but what do you expect from something written in the 1600’s?).

Elisha Willis as Katherina was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever wondered what a temper tantrum would look like in the medium of dance, but I now know.  The spirit, crossness and frustration of Katherina was a beautiful thing to see, and also very funny. Her battles with Petruchio (Iain Mackay) transformed to romance as he showed he wasn’t intimidated by her forcefulness and willingness to give him a good smack on the arse.

She was my favourite character but I also loved the three suitors in all their peacock finery and silliness. Gremio (Rory Mackay) as the buffoon, always getting the steps wrong and his cloak tangled is worth a particular mention. The romantic dance of Bianca (Jenna Roberts) and Lucentio (Brandon Lawrence) was a beautiful thing, properly spellbinding and I would suspect also technically brilliant. I’ve heard people say about dancers being ‘lighter than air’, ‘defying gravity’ and tonight I grasped what that meant, with Brandon Lawrence holding a position in the air just a little longer than should ever be possible.  The Katherina/Petruchio dances were spectacular, with the characters of both shining through as they went from wrestling and battering each other to accepting each others advances.

The set design and the designs of the clothes were also perfect; I think the best description I can give is ‘muted jewels’. There was a subdued glow to the colours. It was beautiful, and the turquoise and red dress worn by one of the whores made me want to find one just like it.

I’ve come out of this wanting to see more ballet. All the dancers were amazing, the scenes were beautiful, the clothes stunning… I’ll run out of superlatives. I found myself completely enraptured by the whole experience, and I would encourage other ballet virgins to give it a try. I haven’t even mentioned the orchestra (great), the lighting (fantastic), the raunchy whores, so much else. It’s been a very welcome revelation, and I will definitely be looking for more.  I suspect that I have been introduced to the experience by an extremely good production, which you need to be quick to catch as it finishes its run here on Saturday 2nd.

Review by Gin Gould

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