Theatre review: The RSC's The Taming of the Shrew on DVD
It seems that the switching of gender roles is very much 'a thing' in Shakespeare, not just from the modern performance view, but in the plays themselves and historically in how the roles were originally performed by men. Switching the roles for modern performance can be useful as a way to revisit and question the themes in Shakespeare's plays and consider whether what they say still has contemporary relevance.
That's something that is particularly important in a play like The Taming of the Shrew, which if we take it at face value presents some challenges for a modern audience in terms of its controversial treatment of male and female roles or, more specifically, how it seems to tolerate, promote and perpetuate misogyny and domestic abuse. There's an argument to be made that Shakespeare was subverting such attitudes, but the fact that it is a comedy makes it difficult to approach from a modern perspective and any attempt to impose a contemporary outlook or commentary on it risks losing the comedic genius of the play. The RSC's 2019 The Taming of the Shrew takes a big gamble by not only switching the roles of master and mistress, but completely gender switching every role in the play.
Here in Justin Audibert's production the play has been translated to a matriarchy in the 1590s (the time of the writing of the play), all the male characters transformed into women and played by women as women, while all the female characters are transformed into men and played by men as men. There's justification for carrying out this experiment, for seeing whether what Shakespeare is really doing is not exploring questions of gender roles, as much as questions of power and dominance, which is a consistent theme in Shakespeare's works. Whether that's true of The Taming of the Shrew is less certain but there's a case to be made for it. The problem however is that it's all very messy and confusing, particularly if you attempt to look beyond the comedy and question whether the role-reversal really challenges gender stereotypes or brings anything new to the play at all.
The good points are that it's often hilariously funny in an Upstart Crow way. The performances are delightfully over-the-top, with lots of Harry Enfield-like 'oooh, young man' eye-rolling, fanning and swooning on the part of the suitors for Bianca (Bianco here evidently) from Sophie Stanton and Emily Johnstone. It can become a bit shouty and speedy, throwing away perfectly good situational comedy and lines for the sake of a cheap laugh, there's lots of swagger and exaggerated gestures - particularly on the part of Laura Elsworthy's Tranio - but by and large it works and is funny. It's not as if Shakespeare was above cheap laughs in The Taming of the Shrew, so it captures the absurd spirit of the work well.
The region free DVD looks fine. NTSC for international compatibility, the image is a little soft on a HD television but there are no issues and the production looks clear and colourful. The audio likewise is excellent with Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks. There's a good essay in booklet by Martin Wiggins that attempts to explain what we would see as peculiarities in character, comedy and gender politics by placing it in the context of the time it was written, with reference to other plays and historical events. The extras include the usual RSC interviews and a director's commentary.