The Taming of the Shrew
York Shakespeare Project at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York
Everybody's doing it - Edward Hall and his all male Propeller, Mark Rylance and an all-male and an all-female company at the Globe - cross-dressed Shakespeare is the order of the day. Now the York Shakespeare Project is doing it, but rather differently.
The director of The Taming of the Shrew, Paul Toy, has chosen to have men play the women's parts and vice-versa. Actually, not quite all, but that may be due to casting constraints. We do, however, have a male Katherina, a male Bianca, and a female Petruchio, Grumio, Curtis, Luentio, Tranio, Biondello and Hortensio.
This is not a capricious act on Toy's part, not an attempt to be "different", but his way of tackling the "problem" of the Shrew. For, in these post-feminism days, there is very definitely a problem. The whole tenor of the play - and not least Katherina's "Fie, fie!" speech at the end - makes modern audiences very uncomfortable. Toy's answer is to turn the whole thing into a game and he does that by using three devices.
To begin with, he makes much more of the Christopher Sly opening than is usual. He turns a Lord into A, Lord, television presenter, and makes the setting a TV studio. We are already in a land of make-believe before the make-believe elevation of Sly to the aristocracy even begins. And he closes the play with Sly being returned to his drunken stupor in precisely the same place where he was picked up by A. Lord at the beginning, from whence he is led away by the Hostess with whom he was rowing at the beginning.
Then we are reminded at every turn that what we are watching is a play within a play. Sly, his "wife" and Lord are on stage watching all the time (with Sly occasionally making as if to intervene). We have singing scene-changers (and they do sing beautifully).
Finally, the contrast between the words and what we see onstage - a woman dressed as a man berating a man dressed as a woman and trying to break him/her - takes us yet one more step away from reality.
The problem is that, whilst all of the women are played by men, not all of the men are played by women, and that does, I feel, cause a little confusion. But, within that limitation, the concept does work and the audience is led to consider the play, as Toy says in a programme note, "less of a treatise and more of a game".
What of the performances? The cast is made up mainly of amateur actors of varying experience but there are no embarrassing weak links, as there so often (but not always, I hasten to add!) can be in large amateur casts. There are some diction problems and a narrowness of range in some of the players - including some of the principals - but these are not large enough to spoil the audience's enjoyment at any stage in the production.
The weakness I highlighted in their first production (Richard III) - a disconnection between words on the one hand and movement and body language on the other - was emphatically not present here. I felt that the whole company was much more at home with Shakespeare and that they "felt" the text rather than simply appreciating it intellectually.
That's two under their belt, and one more to come this year. The Comedy of Errors comes to York's Friargate Theatre from 3rd to 6th December.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan