Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Richard Hall
The Taming Of The Shrew is one of three plays that the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought to The Lowry for a much anticipated two week season. Having previously played at Stratford-Upon-Avon, this production has generated a lot of interest due to its fresh portrayal of gender politics. What makes this production stand out from others is Director, Justin Audibert’s decision to change the gender of the play’s characters and turn an overtly patriarchal society into a matriarchal one. The shrewish Katherine in this depiction of Sixteenth Century Italian high society is the eldest son of Baptista, a rich gentlewoman and Petruchia, his would be suitor, a down at heel female aristocrat looking to secure a handsome dowry. In a programme note, Audibert explains that his inspiration for flipping the genders was to see, ‘What happens when you get female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa.’
For anyone watching this intriguing gender-bending production the foremost question must surely be does Auibert’s directorial approach work and if so is there anything that can be learnt from it? It begins promisingly enough with a beautifully choreographed court dance in which the women lead and the men in deference avert their eyes. There is much comedy to be had from this premise, especially from Amanda Harris as Baptista and Sophie Stanton as Gremia, one of Bianco’s, Katherine’s brother’s suitors. Both actresses clearly enjoy playing their gender-swapping roles and Harris, in particular, is excellent playing a bombastic matriarch to great comic effect. As a result of flipping the genders the male characters especially Bianco and Petruchia’s servant, Grumio are reduced to effeminate, limp-wristed caricatures. Although amusing for a while over the course of a two and a half hour production this conceit becomes tiring and irksome. It is clear that Audibert has done this in part to make the languid and morose Katherine stand out from his peers but even though this is a comedy and clichés are to be expected the distinction between the sexes could have been more subtle and less heavy-handed.
The Taming Of The Shrew is regarded due to the sexual politics at its heart to be one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays. For it to truly succeed it requires the performances of the actors playing the two central roles to convince an audience that Katherine’s torment at the hands of his bullying spouse is redemptive and given modern sensibilities, necessary in order to correct and transform his apparently unacceptable behaviour. This is where Auibert’s approach falters and especially in the later Acts becomes confused.
As good as Joseph Arkley is as Katherine his talents are squandered and he is never really given a chance to get to grips with the role. It is difficult to understand why as the “cursed shrew,” his Katherine is in need of taming. Katherine’s behaviour hints at possible mental illness and Arkley convincingly portraying the character’s frailties and insecurities. At the hands of Claire Price’s, Petruchia and others, Katherine’s brutal conditioning makes for uncomfortable viewing. Audibert’s gender flip fails to make sense of Katherine and Petuchia’s relationship and one is ultimately left feeling that this is a theatrical gimmick that hasn’t quite worked. However, in spite of this Claire Price does more than enough to suggest that in a more considered production her performance could possibly be a classic rendering of the role. Price’s verse speaking is excellent throughout and her characterisation is wonderfully nuanced. She is without question the best thing about this uneven production.
Although there is much to enjoy including Price’s bravo performance, a wonderful on-stage band playing composer Ruth Chan’s pulsating Rock Renaissance score and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ delightful Elizabethan theatre like set, this interpretation of the play essentially represents an opportunity missed. The prospect of turning gender and sexual politics on its head was a hugely exciting one that could have produced a groundbreaking and landmark production. At best this version produces fleeting moments of rib-tickling comedy but for the most part fails to deliver on what at the outset promised to be an exhilarating and radical reworking of one of Shakespeare’s most complex and problematic plays.
Runs until Saturday 5 October 2019 | Image: Ikin Yum