"The Taming of the Shrew" is not exactly a monument to women's liberation. But it's a lot of fun, and -- making allowances for what some call a benighted attitude -- it's also substantial in a way that Shakespeare's more frivolous farces are not. Whatever their shortcomings, the main characters are real people, and real fireworks burst forth when they get together.
All these qualities stand out in the new production that airs as the third-season opener of the "The Shakespeare Plays" series from BBC (PBS, Monday, Jan. 26, check local listings) Directed by the multitalented Jonathan Miller, it's a sturdy rendition, marked by strong performances and a rousing pace. Though the humor rarely reaches laugh-out-loud levels, the lines are crisply and clearly delivered, with occasional flights of real sublimity when the poetry warrants. The settings, as well as the costumes, are colorful and credible.
The revelation of the show is John Cleese as Petruchio. As an occasional watcher of the "Monty Python" comedy troupe, whence Cleese is best known, I've always thought of him as an able buffoon -- a mainstay of the frantic Python style, but not an actor of Shakespearean range. He proves otherwise here, with a performance that is at once precise, carefully modulated, and ever-so-slightly insane. Though this Petruchio clearly knows just what he's doing, he's full of surprises for us, as well as for the Katharina whose "taming" is the main thread of the play. In Cleese's hands, he's one part dapper, two parts cunning, and three parts wacky. It's a winning parlay.
In his first contribution to the Shakespeare TV series, director Miller keeps the action flowing smoothly and swiftly. More than most TV directors, he understands how to use a flexible performance area for maximum dramatic effect.
This production is no succession of flat close-ups: The background is sometimes as important as the foreground, and Miller knows how to grab our eyes by deftly catapulting us from one to the other. Because of the limitations of the TV medium, a certain amount of visual detail is lost when the focus of attention suddenly swoops into the distance. But there is a terrific gain in energy and variety.
Cleese is capably supported by Sarah Badel as a fiery yet somehow subtle Kate , who makes her presence keenly felt even when Petruchio has all the lines. Susan Penhaligon is a lovely Bianca, and a feisty roster of supporting players rounds out the cast.
"The Taming of the Shrew" remains one of Shakespeare's liveliest and most vigorous comedies. While TV is far from ideal at conveying dramatic works -- lacking the immediacy of the stage and the pictorialism of cinema -- its possibilities are richly exploited in this cheerfully untamed Miller production.