Custom/Practice’s flagship production at the heart of the Verve Festival (a month-long exploration of shifting relations between minority groups and the theatre) is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, which is in itself an interesting addition to the wide variety of productions being staged for Shakespeare 400.
The difference in this production is that all the male characters are played by women, and all the female characters by men. This allows some interesting ideas to be explored – as the Shrew Katharina, Kazeem Tosin Amore may cause some amusement in his bride’s veil, but also a moment of shock when he strikes the boisterous Petruchio (Martina Laird) during their first explosive meeting.
It isn’t just gender-swap casting which is being portrayed here: Petruchio, Baptista, Tranio, Hortensio, Gremio and Biondello become women, and so the balance of power shifts in that they inherit fortunes from their mothers and take the lead in romantic relationships, engaging in physical and cultural behaviours quite unthinkable in a usual 16th century society.
In contrast, Katharina and Bianca become men, in high heels, corsets, and in Bianca’s case, with a mouth smudged in lipstick. They are made submissive and powerless while the strong and powerful female characters roister, make plans for their future, and wager on their obedience, while they stand quietly by.
Where the switch from male to female worked well in the other characters, I felt that the weakness of this production was in the depiction of the sons who were sought out as husbands. It was an interesting idea on the surface but in Bianca’s case in particular, the characteristics which made the young girl endearing in Shakespeare’s original simply made ‘him’ tiresome here, and unworthy of so many suitors.
The staging is interesting – this is a very small theatre space, using the most perfunctory of set dressing, but a sense of place, time and travel was very well done. The programme mentions help from a number of well-known names to bring this production to fruition, and it is clearly money well-spent.
This is a clever and in some way subversive show which turns some ideas of what is one of the Bard’s most problematic plays on its head, especially in the famous speech of Kate’s near the end, in which ‘he’ speaks of offering his hand under his wife’s foot to give her ease. I found this touching, where usually the speech can cause a modern audience to cringe because of the very gender politics this festival seeks in part to address.
The diversity in terms of ethnicity is also on display here, with Trinidadian Laird in the pivotal leading role, surrounded by Nigerian Karlina Grace-Paseda (Baptista, whose reactions in the ‘Kate is sweet’ scene were delightful), and other actors of colour, including the vibrant Kayla Meikle as Tranio.
Director Rae McKen has created an excellent production of an enduring classic in which the company’s stated belief that ‘anybody, whatever their class, background or education can create, access and enjoy theatre of the highest quality’ is definitely vindicated.
Other standouts in the cast include a Gremio from Brigid Lohrey who goes from the waspish old man of the original to a rather bitchy and scene-stealing mature lady, and Lorenzo Martelli’s grumbling Gromio (we will forgive him for showering us with water at one point, which gives a whole new meaning to integration of stage and audience).
Laird’s Petruchio is a delight and worth admission in itself, while Tosin Amore is an excellent Kate, whether shaking in rage at the audacity of a mother seeking to rule his future life, to his eventual placidity as part of a loving couple.
A solid company, a literate reimagining of a source product, and a good fringe venue make this a highly recommended outing. Book until 1 May at https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-taming-of-the-shrew/.