OF THE SHREW
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
8 March - 31 August 2019
Reviewed by Andrew Whiffin
There can’t be many of Shakespeare’s plays which lend themselves so interestingly to the RSC’s determination to achieve gender-balanced (as well as colour-blind and disability-blind) casting as The Taming of the Shrew. By reversing the genders of the leading characters, so that the patriarchal assumptions of Petruchio, Baptista, Lucentio and the rest are replaced by the husband-hunting of Petruchia, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia, some worthwhile observations arise. For a start, the stately dance with which the production opens is disturbing when one notices that the ladies are leading the men, which gives it more point than the subsequent ensemble song-and-dance routines.
But Justin Audibert’s production does not manage to make it into a better play. The coercive control exercised by a woman over a man is just as offensive as the other way round, and, in the end, feels no more liberating. And for once Hannah Clark’s Elizabethan costumes (... a long time since we have seen a period costumed show at the RSC ... ) seem to diminish the point being made. Is it too comfortable for us to be allowed to think ‘this is a comment on the way things used to be’?
The only character to survive without gender-switch is Richard Clews’s Grumio. I’m not sure about this. When Petruchio treats his male servant with the same brutality as he dishes out to Katharina, it makes a significant point about his nature. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to see Petruchia beating up a female servant in the same way as she does her future husband.
In most other ways, though, this is a conventional reading of the text. Claire Price’s Petruchia is vigorous and fun, while Joseph Arkley’s Katharine (the name is preserved intact) is a troubled and angry brother to James Cooney’s coquettish Bianco, who flicks his hair at his female suitors, and has Sophie Stanton’s very funny Gremia often discombobulated in her lust for him. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is a panelled wall with a gallery and spiral staircase, which suits the look of the costumes. Whatever the effect of the central directorial concept, it is the same play as Shakespeare wrote in the early 1590s, warts and all.