The Taming Of The Shrew
Jo Clifford / William Shakespeare
Sherman Theatre / Tron Theatre Company
You wait 427 years for a gender-swapped version of The Taming Of The Shrew, then two come along at the same time...
It is perhaps no coincidence that both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Sherman, in collaboration with Glasgow's Tron Theatre, have revisited this, one of Shakespeare's most troubling plays, at a moment in which there is a growing awareness of the extent to which our institutions are built on sexual exploitation and transgender issues are in the headlines.
Playwright Jo Clifford, a stalwart of Edinburgh Traverse Theatre who began to identify as female relatively late in life, has spoken of her long-standing distaste for the play. Thus, unsurprisingly, this production is more of a deconstruction than an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's earliest works.
The drama begins in the foyer, where it is announced that female audience members (and those identifying as such) are to enter the studio space first and sit in the best seats, i.e. those nearest the front (an arguable point, of course); members of the cast act as ushers.
There is a nod to the framing device utilised in the original, when Matt Gavan's objectionably sexist audience member, Sly, is dragged into the performance area—Madeline Girling's design gives us a bullring, concealed by a curtain, with the actors initially on the outside—and incorporated into the action.
The situation is explicitly explained to us: we are in a world where women are the dominant gender and marriage is undertaken as a business proposition. The music—Lizzo's distinctly non-Tudor-Era "Boys"—sets up the facetious mood.
The narrative focusses on Louise Ludgate's wealthy Baptista and her two sons, Gavan's troublesome Katherina and the younger, more submissive (in more ways than one) Bianca, François Pandolfo. The latter has a number of suitors, but Baptista is determined not to marry him off until she gets Katherina off her hands. Luckily, along comes the self-regarding Petruchio—Scarlett Brookes—who resolves to bend the pugnacious Kat to her will.
Then there are Bianca's suitors: the team of Lucentio and Tranio—Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Alexandria Riley (both of whom get to display their impressive musicality)—and Claire Cage's Grumio. Cage also plays the modern-day scholar who comments on the sexual politics of the plot and much fun is had with actors trying and occasionally failing to explain their multiple characters and their relationships to one another.
The tone of the piece, under the direction of Michael Fentiman (with Joseff Fletcher and Danny Krass taking care of lighting and sound design respectively), is generally playful, although there are occasional outbreaks of unsubtle agitprop-style speechifying—perhaps necessary since the narrative itself does little to advance the argument that women would be any less cynical and exploitative when it came to running the world than men are.
Clifford does not retain a great deal of the original text (telling the story in under 90 minutes), but Petruchio's gradual wearing down of Katherina's resolve remains. No new light is shed on this apparent capitulation, though; their growing affection seems to be presented without irony.
While it's not an entirely coherent experience, this Shrew is consistently diverting, benefiting from the excellent comic timing exhibited by the cast. It will probably be of little use, however, to anyone studying the original as a set text.