Shakespeare’s tempestuous love story

January 24, 2016 (cinema screening)
Maggie Foyer

William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is not one of his most popular plays. This has a lot to do with the hero Petruchio’s brutal methods of bringing his wife to heel which have been difficult to sell in our more egalitarian times.

Jean-Christophe Maillot’s solution is to create a tempestuous love story that neatly sidesteps the controversy while injecting a healthy dose of irony. Created for the Bolshoi Ballet in July 2014, it was screened live in cinemas last weekend, and can be seen on the company’s visit to London in late summer.

The simple functional set of arching staircases are shunted round to frame the various interiors and the costumes are equally minimal. Designed by Maillot’s son Augustin, a fashion designer at Chanel, they are the essence of chic. The bouffant skirt for Bianca (and later for Katharina), and a shaggy coat for Petruchio – to highlight his animal magnetism – give no more than a hint. The economy of setting successfully draws the focus to the emotional battle at the heart of the ballet.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov as Katharina and Petruchio are fiery dancers who translate their passions into brilliant dance. Maillot skilfully choreographs their sparring in the first act into inventive shapes and situations but the highlight is their Act Two duet where pretence is finally stripped away and they reveal their true feelings: feelings so real that a servant (a neat comic performance from Georgy Gusev) rushes on with a sheet to cover the bed and the couchant bodies to preserve decency.

For this duet Maillot has chosen the second movement from Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 8th String Quartet where the melody stridently interpreted by appassionato strings accurately captures the moment. The music, predominantly selected from Shostakovitch’s many film scores finds the raucous, the ironic and the sentimental to match each mood and is magnificently played under the baton of Igor Dronov, who gets his own brief comic moment in the prologue in mimed dialogue with the housekeeper, Anna Tikhomirova, a true femme fatale, dressed to kill and an erogenous addition to any grand household.

This prologue has its counterpart in Shakespeare’s play in the rarely seen Christopher Sly scene, but in this version Anna Tikhomirova walks on in stiletto heels to settle herself centre stage where she proceeds to swop heels for equally lethal pointes. Ever conscious of her charms she then checks make-up and finally buffs her nails while the orchestra patiently waits. Finally she rise and after cursory applause for the orchestra she moves into the opening scene. Here she remains a dominate figure and while she is a beguiling performer such another strong passionate women threatens to throw the story off kilter.

Fortunately Krysanova as Katherina has the charisma to set the balance right. Whether in close up or full figure she is not a woman to be messed around and neither is Lantratov. He enters like a force ten gale; a brilliant technician, with the charm and looks to set female hearts aflutter. As Petruchio, he is ideally cast.

Maillot has inserted the briefest of ‘dream sequences’ following Petruchio’s first stolen kiss. Katharina slips out of his arms while the rest of the cast freeze and in the briefest of solos she reveals a genuine attraction for this man. Does this spoil the story? Well, no, as when the action resumes she is back in full fighting form; letting her man know that she is both a prize that will have to be fought for but also one worth winning.

Playing the adorable Bianca can seem to be the second-best option but Olga Smirnova is given good material both in the choreography and the character and takes her opportunity with both hands, the sisters’ fight scenes in particular, delivered with a good dollop of humour. She and Lucentio, Semyon Chudin, get their best showing in a long lyrical pas de deux in the second act. Joined by Katharina and Petruchio, the ballet has a rather low key close on happy couples dancing to ‘Tea for Two’. This preserves the sophisticated tone but delightful as Shostakovitch’s arrangement is, I wished Maillot had gone for a more conventional close and created a rip-roaring Grand Pas for the lead couple with a couple of bravura solos to climax.