Theatre review: The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC
The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Justin Audibert
Cast: Claire Price, Joseph Arkley, Amanda Harris, James Cooney, Amelia Donkor, Sophie Stanton, Laura Elsworthy, Emily Johnstone, Amy Trigg, Melody Brown, Richard Clews
RSC Cinema Live - 5th June 2019
It seems that the switching of gender roles is very much 'a thing' in Shakespeare. I'm not sure why this seems to be applied to Shakespeare more than anyone else, but the results and success of the Donmar Warehouse all-female Trilogy (Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest) and the Globe's recent women of colour Richard II have certainly revealed interesting new facets to the works. Maybe it's to do with the fact that there's already plenty of gender swapping in Shakespeare and all the roles were originally performed by men, so the actual gender of the performers really shouldn't be an issue. There's also the necessity to constantly revisit and question the themes in Shakespeare's plays, to look beyond such matters and deeper into the themes, weighing up 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. The fact that it treats it as a comedy is also problematic, but the two are so intertwined that you risk losing the essence of the comedy if you try to underplay the nature of the treatment and gaslighting that Petruchio subjects upon his new wife Kate to keep the unruly shrew in line and make sure she treats her husband with due respect as her lord and master.
Well, there's certainly comedy in that situation if you want to subvert that idea and it's by no means unthinkable that Shakespeare was setting out to do this, or at least explore and question how women are treated in married relationships when he wrote The Taming of the Shrew. The wise director will play that in a way that will allow the audience to make up their own minds. Anyone who tries to subvert it themselves has a much trickier prospect trying to keep all the strands together and not let an imposed contemporary outlook or commentary impose on the comedy. 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.
That's an even bigger challenge that just having female actors play all the roles, since even there they do tend to play the male roles as men. Occasionally genders are switched, but usually in minor roles where it makes little difference, and sometimes even in bigger roles - as with the RSC's Cymbeline where the King became a Queen and the Queen a Duke - where it likewise makes little difference (and serves little purpose). Here in Justin Audibert's production, all the male characters are transformed into women and played by women as women, while all the female characters are transformed into men and played by men as men. If that sounds complicated and convoluted, it's actually simply a straightforward swap, and it's Shakespeare, so you should be well used to men playing women and vice-versa. Except in this case it is indeed rather complicated and convoluted.
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. That's certainly a theme that is consistent in Shakespeare's works. Whether it's true of The Taming of the Shrew is less certain but there's a case to be made for it. I'm just not sure however that Justin Audibert's idea of total role-reversal works or presents a valid take on what Shakespeare was setting out to achieve in the play.
The good points are that it's often hilariously funny in an almost Pythonesque bonkers mad-cap 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 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 problems are 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. If it was an all-female production it might have worked better, but I found it simply impossible to constantly do the mental gymnastics required to imagine The Taming of the Shrew in a matriarchal society and flip it back to think about what points Shakespeare was trying to make about the abuses of a patriarchal society. Does turning Petruchio into Petruchia and having a female mete out the abuse to a man make the abusiveness of the relationship any more unacceptable? Particularly as Petruchia is played as someone completely and comically deranged by Claire Price.
To further add to the confusion Katherine is still called Katherine, even though he is a man (otherwise you'd lose those 'Kiss me, Kate' lines and I don't think 'Kiss me, Kevin' would work so well), so you're left somewhat confused about his petulant nature, whether he's actually the misogynistic one who hates women, or perhaps his aggression and unruly behaviour is over-compensation for having a female name. And it seems that because of the roles they have, Katherine has to necessarily be effeminate, since in the original we assume that Katherine's nature is seen as an affront for being too 'masculine'. In such circumstances, it's difficult to understand who Katherine is here, why he is the way he is, and if you then have to keep flipping it over and considering how it fits in with the commentary that Shakespeare applies, it's a bit of a headache. And ultimately, it doesn't actually force you to consider The Taming of the Shrew as having anything important to say.
Fortunately, there's plenty to enjoy in the production purely as a raucous knockabout comedy, and all the performances are hugely entertaining. The set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the costumes by Hannah Clark and the lighting design by Matt Peel are also impressive. This is a lovely looking production that works perfectly well in a period setting, which is neither here nor there as far as getting the themes across (or not as the case might be here). The production doesn't have the Christopher Sly framing device, which can be useful for putting some distance between the play and its potentially misogynistic content, but that might be another complication too far for this production, so it's wisely omitted. This is an attractive, funny and entertaining production, and the experiment in gender switching is a worthy one in theory, but in practice it really doesn't work.