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Theatre review: Taming Who? (Intermission, Arcola Theatre)

05 December 2023

Peter Graystone enjoys youthful revisionism

Lidia Crisafulli

Sara Mokonen as Katherine and Keon Martial-Phillip as Petruchio in Taming Who?

Sara Mokonen as Katherine and Keon Martial-Phillip as Petruchio in Taming Who?

WHAT do you get if you cross an unstoppable youth theatre with an unperformable play? You get a morally complex, hugely entertaining triumph.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. It is about how an acrimonious woman is humiliated into becoming a docile wife. Although it fitted the comedy stereotypes of its day, it now seems too horrible to be performed as written.

Intermission Youth Theatre was founded by Janine and the Rt Revd Rob Gillion and uses drama to give disadvantaged young people an opportunity to transform their circumstances. Shakespeare has always been at the heart of their year-long programme and performance. Many of them go on to have professional careers in the arts. To mark their 15th anniversary, they have gathered graduates from the past decade to perform Taming Who?, a brilliant up-to-the-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s misogynistic play by Darren Raymond, which sets it in a London university among students of African heritage.

Having lied to his mother, reckless Petruchio (Keon Martial-Phillip) needs to find a bride in haste. He sets his sights on the ferociously feminist Katherine (Sara Mokonen), a university fresher who sees through the posturing of sex-hungry men and isn’t shy of telling them. Act One ends with disconcerting ambiguity as Katherine seems about to betray her principles. In Act Two, the relationship descends into the troublesome (but undeniably funny) bullying that Shakespeare’s play demands. But then, in a superb twist, our expectations crash headlong into Nigerian family culture with the arrival of Petruchio’s mother (Morenike Onajobi, as monumental as she is hilarious) and the dynamics change altogether. It is Petruchio who is tamed, not Katherine.

Around the main story dance a series of subplots in which the couple’s friends woo each other (if woo is the right word for the flirting, sexting, and groping on which the play shines a caustic spotlight). Although it seems unfair to single out particular performances in such a generous ensemble, Kai Jerdioui and Tré Medley are gleefully funny disguised as Italian tutors in order to get close to the women they fancy.

Delyth Evans’s functional two-level set takes us to student bedrooms, a nightclub, a hotel, and a Nigerian veranda. The director, Stevie Basaula, keeps the action moving forward at a breakneck pace, revealing all the ingenuity of Darren Raymond’s adaptation. The script moves jauntily between the poetic lines of Shakespeare and sassy street talk. Much of the comedy comes when the two crunch into each other: “She’s not froward but modest as the dove; she’s not hot but temperate as the morn . . . and she’s feelin’ me!”

Throw in gags about Matt Hancock, male bravado, and the interminable length of grace before an African meal, and Shakespeare’s ghastly play is reinvented as a satire on the spiky surface and the hidden heart of romance for Generation Z. It is impossible not to love it.

Taming Who? continues at the Arcola Theatre, London, until 14 December. Phone 020 7503 1646. arcolatheatre.com

Read our feature about Intermission Youth Theatre here

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