William Shakespeare adapted by Emma Heron
Mrs Pankhurst’s Players
Salford Arts Theatre

Shrew Credit: Helen Newall
Shrew Credit: Helen Newall
Shrew Credit: Helen Newall

We live in a hyper-sensitive age when people are quick to take offence. Inevitably plays written centuries ago are bound to contain some material that will provoke outrage. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, a tale of a strong woman whose will is broken by the outrageous antics of her suitor to the extent she learns how to behave as a submissive wife, is one such play.

Surprisingly, Mrs Pankhurst’s Players, Edge Hill University’s feminist theatre collective, takes exception not to the content of the play but rather its tone. Rather than call for the play to be banned, they point out the aspects which they find offensive. They do not perceive the play as a comedy (their production, Shrew, is promoted under the hashtag ‘It’s not funny’) but rather as a brutal domestic drama.

Emma Heron, who adapted Shrew, directs a stylish production. In a present-day setting, a trio of drag queens open and close the play energetically miming to pop hits. It is such a startling opening it comes as a shock when the play begins with Shakespeare’s verse intact. Heron trims the text ruthlessly but the plot would still be clear to anyone seeing the play for the first time.

Padua is portrayed as a corrupt society dominated by sharp-suited spivs. Instead of a manservant, Petruchio is accompanied by a flashy gangster’s moll over-dressed in a fur coat.

Shakespeare wrote Petruchio as a gambler recklessly bluffing that his bizarre tactics will win the day. Emma Heron interprets the character as a terrifying psychopath—superficially charming when in company but savagely brutal when alone with Kate. The initial encounter between the couple is horrifying as Petruchio chokes Kate into submission before raping her. There is nothing erotic in the relationship, no sense of sexual role-play; it is a crude exercise of one-sided power. The scene is made all the more disgusting as it proceeds while Petruchio is reciting some of Shakespeare’s finest verse. Kate is played as a trauma victim, blankly reciting lines as if brainwashed.

Mrs Pankhurst’s Players convincingly creates a society in which women are held in low regard. A marriage is held with the bride mouthing ‘’help me’’ as the pissed groom vomits into his hat. A pair of women fighting is regarded as a spectator sport. At the conclusion of the play, Kate is forgotten. Her purpose served—the men have settled their bets—Kate is simply discarded and, it is implied, left to find her way to a place of refuge.

In a couple of months, the Royal Shakespeare Company will be bringing its version of the play to the region. It will be interesting to see if it matches the emotional intensity of Shrew. This is a highly original production, challenging the tone of the play while showing respect for the text, and marks Mrs Pankhurst’s Players as a company to watch.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Are you sure?