Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Katy Roberts
William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a notoriously tricky play, and a bold choice for the second production in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2019 season, directed by Justin Audibert. Not least because of the decision to turn the play’s central conflict – between a fiery, headstrong woman, Katherine, and Petruchio, the man determined to cow her into submission by any means necessary – entirely on its head by having the roles typically played by men become those of women, and vice versa. Petruchio becomes Petruchia (Claire Price), Gremio becomes Gremia (Sophie Stanton), and Hortensio becomes Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). “Set in a reimagined 1590, England is a matriarchy”, the programme and promotional materials declare. There’s no question that this is a hugely intriguing concept (one inspired by Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, apparently) – unfortunately, it just does not work.
The problem lies, perhaps, in the production’s heavy reliance on dialling up the comedic elements of Shrew – which would make sense (Shrew is classed as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, after all) were it not for the fact that within all the comedy, at the play’s heart, runs a sinister undercurrent of abuse and gaslighting of all kinds, physical, mental and emotional. Instead, almost everything here is played for laughs. Every female character has a comedy ’shtick’, and whilst some of these work – Sophie Stanton’s Gremia gliding across the stage, and her struggles to unsheath her sword throughout the play are particularly funny – the rest do not. They become quite tiresome as the play progresses, and have the opposite effect to what Audibert surely intended, which is to show the audience a world where women are the dominant sex, hold all the power, and who are to be respected and taken seriously. Instead, the women are reduced to little more than caricatures, fawning and panting over James Cooney’s Bianco, or squabbling amongst themselves.
It is a similar story with the male characters. With the exception of Joseph Arkley’s Katherine – it is noticeably jarring to not change this name when every other female name has been made masculine, and vice versa – all the other male characters are portrayed as incredibly camp, flouncing around the stage, tossing their hair and generally being incredibly effeminate, which not only makes the love story between Bianco and Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) ring hollow, it also undermines the matriarchal world on which this Shrew is built. Because the men are so submissive, and close in nature to the women onstage, we never really see the women exert any sort of power over them – you never fully buy into the idea that women are the dominant sex in this world.
Even Arkley’s Katherine feels lacking, because despite all the other characters’ gossip about Katherine’s unbiddable, fearsome and aggressive nature, we only glimpse it a handful of times, and when we do see it, not enough is made of it for it to feel significant at any point – such as when we first meet the character, or when he is finally “broken” by Petruchia. There is no shift in atmosphere in the room that signals the dreadful moment that finally, Katherine, the shrew, has been tamed. For all the character’s faults and flaws, you’re still supposed to care about what happens to him, and the moment he is finally broken should be one of dismay and dread. Instead, it is skipped past, almost as an afterthought, and Claire Price’s Petruchia is not menacing or threatening enough for us as an audience to really worry for Katherine’s safety, or for us to really dislike Petruchia for what she is doing to him.
It is a real shame that this directorial gamble has such little payoff, because in theory, it is a hugely intriguing concept, and the actors’ performances are excellent within the confines of the directorial choices given to them. It is disappointing because it feels like a missed opportunity; instead of having something to say about the way society treats both men and women, the production leans too far into the play’s comedy, forgetting about the play’s dark undertones almost entirely. The women are too gossipy, silly and frivolous to be taken seriously, and the male characters are too thinly-drawn for us to really care about any of them, which ultimately does a disservice to all the characters in the play – both male and female.
Runs Until 31 August 2019 and then on tour | Image: Ikin Yum (c) RSC