The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Lowry, Salford
Years ago, it was common for examinations to test students on Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’—those not funny enough to be comedies but too light to be tragedies. Nowadays, the phrase might refer to plays like The Taming of the Shrew whose content is potentially offensive to delicate modern sensitivities.
During the recent GM Fringe, Mrs Pankhurst’s Players, a feminist theatre collective, removed all comedic elements from the play and convincingly re-interpreted it as a brutal domestic drama called Shrew. For the RSC, director Justin Audibert retains the comedy but challenges the audience to consider if it is still funny when a man, rather than a woman, is being tamed.
Audibert flips the genders of every character in the play. Padua in 1590 is a matriarchy and widow Baptista (Amanda Harris) is anxious to marry off her sons. The catch is that shrewish Katherine (Joseph Arkley) has to be married before she will consent to accept suitors for her more sweet-tempered younger son Bianco (James Cooney). Petruchia (Claire Price) is more interested in the dowry on offer than the nature of the groom and so accepts the challenge.
Impressively Audibert avoids the easy option and omits the play’s framing sequence (which would have allowed the concept of a matriarchy to be dismissed as a drunkard’s dream) and wordlessly constructs a convincing matriarchal society. The play opens with a dance in which the men preen around the stage flicking their long hair coquettishly while the women brusquely take the lead. Joseph Arkley glowers in the background—the only man with aggressively short hair. In the scene where Katherine strikes Petruchia, Arkley reacts with terror at his own actions. It suggests a dark undertone to the society—that such behaviour is not tolerated by the matriarchy and fear of terrifying retribution ensures men, although physically stronger, are not inclined to rebel.
Audibert is not a slave to political correctness and is willing to risk giving offence. The wheelchair-bound Biondella (Amy Twigg) is treated as a human trolley and loaded down with suitcases and books. A conversation involving Charlotte Arrowsmith using sign language becomes so extreme as to nudge into hilarious mime.
Audibert does not simply retain the comic structure; he exploits every possible opportunity to get a laugh. Servants in disguise over-act disgracefully and old soldiers are unable to withdraw swords from scabbards. Hannah Clark’s costumes are gorgeous but the full-length skirts also allow characters to glide around the stage like Daleks.
One might have expected Joseph Arkley to interpret Katherine as a ‘Basil Fawlty' type character full of pointless comic rage. Instead, Arkley allows Katherine to evolve; in the opening scenes, he plays the role not so much as a scolding shrew as an ill-mannered lout. Arkley shows Katherine is not tamed but rather learns to play Petruchia at her own game and so achieve a degree of equality.
With a less skilled cast, the gender switch could have slipped into crude caricature. Instead, the scenes of men adopting ‘seductive’ poses while the women bustle around sorting out more important matters are hard to resist. Subtle differences in characterisation ensure it is possible to distinguish Richard Clews’s fey servant Grumio as being gay rather than a submissive male. Claire Price’s Petruchia is a free-spirited swashbuckling character—defying convention and bouncing around the stage energetically like a boxer in the ring with a rats’ nest of red curls on her head. It is likely that Petruchia and Katherine are attracted to each other by a shared distain for convention and love of anarchy rather than the use of brainwashing techniques.
Shakespeare’s plays are flexible enough to endure all manner of interpretations. The overall effect of this gender-switching production is to free the play from contemporary concerns about portraying, and so encouraging, the abuse of women and allow the audience to relax and enjoy a riotously funny comedy. With this production, the RSC has reclaimed The Taming of the Shrew for comedy and proved the gender of the characters is immaterial—it is simply a very funny play.
(The Taming of the Shrew is part of a trio of plays from the Royal Shakespeare Company and returns to The Lowry on 28 September and 3 October 2019.)
Reviewer: David Cunningham