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Local Shakespeare buffs have seen shrews tamed in a feminist bookshop in ’40s Paris, on the open ranges of a Marx Brothers-ish Wild West, and within the dubiously drawn confines of two or three other “concept” stagings aimed at ironing out the kinks in the Bard’s famous battle of the sexes. Each gloss offered its own giggles, to be sure, but none solved the problems of a play modern audiences usually find too misogynist to stomach.

Trust the Royal Shakespeare Company to find the solutions—most of them, anyway—in the text: Gregory Doran’s triumphant Taming of the Shrew makes sense of the play with a Katherine and Petruchio who make markedly less sense than usual, and he takes his inspiration from the very lines Shakespeare gave his two principals to speak.

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Kate’s sneering dismissals of Petruchio’s antics, for instance—she calls him “a mad-brain rudesby full of spleen”—usually sound like no more than the kind of sass you’d expect from a smart woman chafing under a patriarchal system. But Jasper Britton’s Petruchio actually is a bit of a rudesby, and he might well be more than a little mad: He staggers drunk and disheveled into Padua, looking less the prosperous, rowdy young heir than a troubled young man far from ready to run his own household. If he’s come to “wive it wealthily in Padua,” this production suggests, it’s because he’s an uncertain, underconfident security-seeker having trouble coping with his father’s recent death. A sharp desperation shows through all the swagger, and there’s no disguising the urgency when he asks Kate’s father, “What dowry shall I have with her to wife?”

But there’s a sad self-awareness about him, as well. (Indeed, melancholy is a surprisingly strong presence in this usually boisterous comedy; Tim Mitchell’s vivid-bruise lighting and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ industrial-rustic design make Shakespeare’s Padua feel all too bleakly like a Mahagonny seized with a matrimonial fever.) In Britton’s reading, Petruchio’s usually blustery lines about his deliberately shabby wedding outfit come laced, accordingly, with a sharp tang of regret: “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes,” he says, and “Could I repair what she will wear in me as I can change these poor accoutrements, ’twere well for Kate and better for myself.” Here’s a Petruchio who knows his weaknesses, knows he’s not bringing much to the match—and somehow knows that Kate may be his salvation.

And he hers, for here’s the brilliant thing: Alexandra Gilbreath’s smart but ill-socialized Kate is a mess, too, if not quite the borderline basket case Petruchio is. She’s a plain woman (which makes Petruchio’s praise of her beauty seem like so much additional desperation), and she’s got paternal issues of her own. She pays less attention to her hair (ratty) and clothes (undistinguished and unkempt) than to how many beaus her conventionally pretty sister, Bianca, has collected, and there’s real anguish in Gilbreath’s voice when she flings her father’s favoritism toward the younger girl back in his teeth. There’s always an element of jealousy in the sisters’ relationship, of course, but it’s keener here, more real, less diluted by Katherine’s sense of her own intellectual superiority. She’s needy—and yet next to Petruchio, she’s the strong one. And she wants nothing so much as to save this wounded young suitor of hers from his own folly.

Gilbreath and Britton do lovely, multilayered things with the wooing and wedding scenes, building a haunted, complex relationship in a halting exchange that reaps as much from subtext as it does from the script. If the conceit’s power thins a bit once the two retire to Petruchio’s home, it’s because the “taming” process seems so bluntly old-fashioned, so unlikely and abusive to modern sensibilities. Even here, though, Doran finds illuminating ideas in the text: Britton’s Petruchio never sounds so uncertain as when, keeping a honeymoon vigil by his late father’s portrait, he talks himself unsteadily through the rationale for his “kill a wife with kindness” campaign. A staging hint (that portrait shows the stern old man with a hawk) suggests that Petruchio’s starve-the-falcon approach may be less a clever plan than a wild gamble rooted in what he remembers of his father’s family-management methods: This is an abused kid passing on the abuse, though without a hint of malice.

If Petruchio’s domestic outrages are a near-madman’s roll of the dice, it’s easier to see Kate’s submission as a kind of warily manipulative gesture, too. Loving this mess of a head case despite her better judgment, she’s willing to surrender that better judgment—indeed, to do pretty much anything—to keep him on this side of the brink. And a breath-catcher of a gesture at her final lines hints that maybe, just maybe, her own gamble has paid off.

The play’s ultimately a comedy, to be sure, and Doran’s staging crackles with wit, but it’s by no means certain this impressively bold director has happy endings in mind. Certainly the honeymoon isn’t going to be much fun for Eve Myles’ spoiled, fickle Bianca, who paints herself into a matrimonial corner with Daniel Hawksford’s callow Lucentio and realizes too late that it’s his servant, Rory Kinnear’s wiser-than-usual Tranio, she’d rather be running off with.

And maybe there’s not much of a future for the sparring leads, either, even if they seem to have struck a kind of peace at the final curtain. “I told you…he was a frantic fool,” a pained Kate says of Petruchio in an early moment of despair, and this roller coaster of an evening ends ambiguously enough to leave you thinking—ever so sadly—that she may yet have cause to repeat the observation. CP