The Taming of the Shrew
Justin Audibert directs a thought-provoking gender-bended reimagining of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ on the RSC main stage. Matriarchy replaces patriarchy in this vision of an upturned world of gender power relations.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a problematic play to explain and to stage. Interpretation is all. Everything depends ultimately on ‘how you look at it’. As Oxford University scholar Emma Smith puts it, “to give an account of what happens in this early Shakespeare comedy is to interpret it.” When a plot summary is a contested part of critical interpretation, you know you’re in interesting dramatic territory.
Depending on how you look at it, Katherine is either a feisty, fiercely independent, lonely and misunderstood woman or a strident and anti-social shrew who must be tamed. Petruchio is either a quirky and unorthodox guy who knows his own mind and seeks a woman who knows hers or a psychopathic, misogynistic bounty-hunter with a taste for sadism. Bianca, who cannot marry until her older sister Katherine is married, has two suitors and, depending on how you look at it, is either beautiful, gentle and agreeable or insipid and vacuous.
In this subjective, interpretation-rich context, the decision to substitute Petruchio for Petruchia, and thus to have a woman ‘taming’ a man, is brave and throws up a range of interesting questions about gender roles, power and sexuality. Shakespeare’s tale of domestic violence, wife-beating and domination certainly seems a perfect vehicle for exploring very current questions in the #metoo age. And it’s successful: partly.
In Audibert’s production, the two courtships which the play centres on involve the sons of Paduan merchant Baptista Minola (Amanda Harris): the elder ‘shrew’ Katherine (Joseph Arkley) and his younger brother Bianco (James Cooney). Harris, decked in a sumptuous gown reminiscent of Elizabeth I, is a domineering presence. It feels uncomfortable watching a mother seeking to sell off her son to the highest bidder.
That’s what this interpretation does well: we are constantly forced to reflect on why it feels so different watching men in subservient positions and women in control. And it does feel different. Unsettlingly so. A parent treating their child as chattel somehow emerges as more shocking and unacceptable when that child is a son. We know the patriarchal history of daughters being treated in this way: the role reversal serves to provide a 21st century perspective on such misogynistic and sexist gender history. Have gendered assumptions changed so very much since 1591 when this play was written?
Joseph Arkley’s Katherine seems small on stage when contrasted with the swaggering, wild-haired buccaneering presence of Claire Price’s Petruchia. Hannah Clark’s costuming emphasises the power inversion: Kate’s thin white nightgown against Petruchia’s rich green doublet and hose making Katherine seem weak. Perhaps too weak, too early in the play. He was not shrewish enough at the start. Perhaps this was a deliberate directorial decision: would a man screaming and railing be too comic? Too ‘feminine’? For the later taming torture techniques to ring true we need to buy into Kate as out of control. Wild. He never is. At least not enough to make starvation and sleep deprivation believable taming strategies.
Perhaps what sits most uncomfortably is that Kate can be presented as one of the strongest female roles in Shakespeare. She may be interpreted as a weak, subservient and oppressed wife but most modern directors have considered her a strident, independent and feisty woman. That this role goes to a man perhaps deflates the aim to present women as the dominant gender. Perversely, in flipping genders, what emerges is a vision of a future in which there is no opportunity for the strength in Kate’s character to emerge.
Despite these reservations, this production is an enjoyably challenging one and should be commended for its courage and bravery in taking such a bold casting step. Aspects of the gender inversion don’t work as well - James Cooney’s Bianco is too effeminate with his long hair and coy glances – but there is much to delight. Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia and Sophie Stanton’s Gremia are joyfully comic as Bianco’s competing suitors. Wouldbe lover Lucentia (a beaming Emily Johnstone) forms a perfect double act with her servant Trania, a wonderful turn from a strutting Laura Elsworthy.
It’s a big ask for an audience: suspension of disbelief is one thing but attempting to extricate oneself from a lifetime of deeply embedded, subconscious gender assumptions is quite another. An important and brave attempt though. Theatre is a complex beast, no more so than in Shakespeare. This production lingers long in the memory, forcing difficult questions about male and female roles to the fore. Although only partly successful in pulling off the matriarchal coup, it challenged, prodded and poked. Well worth seeing.
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is running at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford until 31 August 2019 before a national tour.
Reviewed in preview on 13th March.