This gender-bending version of Shakespeare’s problematic comedy is not the first where the message is hammered home through a matriarchal society, dominated by women who even inherit property through the female lane.
Back in 2016’s Verve Festival, at Above the Arts, a version by Custom/Practice had a very similar focus, including a boisterious Petruchio from Martina Laird. In reviewing my write-up of that production, I can see the RSC one has many similar problems.
Having all the male characters played by women, and all the female ones played by men, is an interesting idea. The Taming of the Shrew is a play about power and gender politics, and so shaking up the assumption that men run the show and women are their chattels gives an interesting insight into the nature of roles, obedience, and convention.
Still called Katherine, the troublesome eldest son of Baptista seems a little muted, and easy for his wife (surely a shrew herself by any definition) to mould to her will. This is not the noisy, quarrelling, troublesome Kate on the page. Joseph Arkley’s portrayal almost makes it a shame to yoke him to Claire Price’s domineering Petruchia.
His brother Bianco becomes a vain and petulant young man rather than a sweet and pliant rose: it is difficult to see why he would be wooed by three gentlewomen who appear to regard him as irresistible. He simply is not, and in fact with servants who resemble him down to the hair tossing you can’t help thinking all the ladies are barking up the wrong tree.
Of those three, Gremia has the most scope for comedy, as Sophie Stanton glides across the floor like a chess piece, looking for all the world like an Alice in Wonderland character who has lost her way. Lucencia, sadly, is too drippy and dumb to catch the interest – but a perfect partner for this show’s Bianco. Emily Johnstone and James Cooney catch their quizzical courtship well.
As with many lighter Shakespeares, switched identities abound, with Lucencia and Trania swapping places, a couple of Vincenzias, and a lot of subterfuge. A scene with Richard Clews as Grumio and BSL practitioner Charlotte Arrowsmith as Curtis was richly comic and inventive, and Melody Brown’s imperious Vincentia had the measure of any other woman on the scene.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design had a richness and depth that allowed both small-scale intimate scenes and dancing, with the musicians hidden in the platform corners. Justin Audibert’s direction tried to open up the piece, but ultimately fell under the weight of a plot that values total submission as the route to happiness.
The Taming of the Shrew continues as part of the RSC’s repertory season at the Barbican. Photo credits Ikin Yum.