The fourth season of the Pop-up Globe opens with two very different productions which demonstrate both the strengths and potential pitfalls of the company's sensationally successful approach to staging Shakespeare.

Richard III delivers a thrilling encounter with a much-loved classic while The Taming of the Shrew sees a notoriously problematic play floundering under the weight off an over-bearing directorial concept.

Co-directors David Lawrence and Brigid Costello present Shrew as a farcical rom-com, serving-up a frenetic carnival of buffoonery and clowning in which every disagreement, however big or small, is accompanied with a display of knock-about fisticuffs.

Their interpretation of the play is perfectly reasonable and it is pursued with scrupulous consistency, but the production runs into problems when it claims the elaborate silliness and relentless tom-foolery can also deliver a serious message on gender politics.

Advertisement

There is an unsuccessful stab at resolving the contradiction by inserting a concluding speech that has Christopher Sly, who is the onstage audience for the play, presenting a cheesy, faux-Shakespearean declaration about the need to treat people with kindness and respect.

In spite of these problems the show is not without its charms: It opens with a cleverly conceived piece of audience interaction that sets up high expectations for the "lesson in gender politics".

There are some promising moments, like the scene in which Gremio (Dave Fane) and Tranio (Kirsty Bruce) try to out-bid each other for the right to marry the desirable and compliant Bianca (Ripeka Templeton).

Here, lively musical accompaniment and high-spirited audience involvement creates an entertaining and poignant statement on how Elizabethan romance was distorted by mercenary imperatives.

The stylised buffoonery is carried off with aplomb by Jamie Irvine as Petruchio and Fane's comic talent shines as his romantic enthusiasms are met with rejection and humiliation.

But most of the cast struggle with the incessant demand for madcap clowning and with running time close to three hours (including interval) the play would have benefitted from more judicious editing.

Much of the humour comes from pop-culture references or slippage into modern slang and while this is a sure-fire way of getting a laugh, it is most effective when deployed with discretion.

Stephen Butterworth as Richard III.
Stephen Butterworth as Richard III.

By contrast, Dr Miles Gregory's direction of Richard III is unencumbered by any over-arching conceptual framework and this opens up space for a playful, emotionally compelling production that encourages both the cast and audience to engage with the complexities of the text.

Advertisement

The direction brings great clarity to the twists-and-turns of the play's shifting alliances and intricate Machiavellian stratagems and the finely crafted staging is often brilliantly inventive.

Bob Capocci's magnificent costuming and adroit use of carry-on props, convincingly evokes the pomp and pageantry of royal authority and the battle scenes are skilfully choreographed to allow for plenty of energy and humour amid the slaughter.

Musical director Paul McLaney, whose score also adds an appealing jazz vibe to The Taming of the Shrew, uses resplendent brass to conjure up a convincing period feel in Richard III and the play's excursions into the spiritual realm are enhanced with understated but highly effective sound effects.

At the heart of the show is an electrifying performance by Stephen Butterworth which carries us through the many stages of Richard's journey from endearingly anarchic villain, to smooth dissembler, exultant tyrant and pitiful victim.

His performance is ably supported with a consistently strong cast: Harry Bradley as the Duke of Buckingham captures the self-satisfied arrogance of a tyrant's enabler while Fane, in a variety of roles, movingly evokes the pathos of his victims and Theo David (as Henry, Earl of Richmond) cuts an appealing figure as the heroic and righteous vehicle for Richard's demise.

Jess Loudon establishes a powerful presence as Queen Elizabeth and the scene in which she is forced to agree to Richard's desire to woo her daughter creates a haunting indictment of patriarchal power that is far more moving than anything in The Taming of the Shrew.

The production doesn't try to point to contemporary parallels but it is not difficult to register timely echoes in the career of an orange–hued politician who uses populist humour to assume the mantle of the disruptive outsider while conducting business as an impulsive tyrant.

The fourth season of Pop-up Globe shows the company holding true to its bold vision of theatre as community experience and even when the fruits of their efforts are not pleasing to everyone, you can be sure they will provide a stimulating and entertaining show.

What: The Taming of the Shrew & Richard III
Where & When: Pop-up Globe, Ellerslie to February 3
Reviewed by: Paul Simei-Barton