The Royal Shakespeare Company has been at the heart of bringing classical theatre to a wider audience for many years. Its actors, actresses and creatives have the unenviable task of staging plays written hundreds of years ago in ways that audiences will feel reflect their lives today. But in the pursuit of laudable goals such as inclusiveness and equal representation, the integrity of the plays themselves must not be put to the background to the extent that they grow to serve merely as foils for sociopolitical awareness-raising. What is, therefore, satisfying to see is the success that the cast and crew make of this gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew.
As director Justin Audibert points out in the programme notes, if there were ever a time for the theatre to invite us to think about gender roles and expectations, it might well be now. Given the unambiguous way in which The Taming of the Shrew seems to deal with this subject, it is a bold decision to completely reverse every character’s gender, apart from Richard Clews’ Grumio. However, helped by Hannah Clarke’s majestic costumes, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ authentically Elizabethan-feeling set design and an assured cast, Audibert’s production pulls it off with fairly little reluctance.
There is the sense that painstaking care has been taken over practically every element of the production. Right down to the expansive, imposing costumes of the ascendant female characters, suggestive of the matriarchy they are each a part of; in contrast with the comparatively diminutive and unstructured male garments. Ruth Chan’s ‘rock Renaissance’ musical score feels current but not so far removed from the sixteenth century as to be implausible. It is utilised to great effect throughout the production, but perhaps never more exhilaratingly than in the opening scene (Christopher Sly’s prologue is cut for this version) when the play’s matriarchs storm onto the stage in a dumb-show that brings with it a deliberate and military precision.
Claire Price offers the anticipated laddish Petruchia, bringing an androgyny to the role, and develops a gender ambiguity that sets this interpretation of the play apart from many others. Such subtleties are to Audibert’s credit: facilitating new and varied layers of texture that reflect a diverse conception of identity, embracing apparent contradictions. To this effect, Joseph Arkley delivers Katherine’s final speech with stirring composure. Sometimes viewed as profoundly ironic on Shakespeare’s part — despite the comedy, having spent the entire play illustrating men treating women reprehensibly, Shakespeare gives Katherine a submissive closing speech, seeming to absolve the men in her life of their burden of guilt for her exploitation — in delivery, the speech has the peculiar quality of being able to undermine itself and resolves the difficulty that the play seems to end with Katherine tamed and downtrodden. Arkley’s interpretation does not point to such an explicit angle. In some sense, the whole thing is underplayed. The image of the husband placing his hand beneath his wife’s feet and treating her with the deference, respect and care expected of women in the original seems to speak to a modern audience. Following the lightness of the preceding scenes, Arkley seems to remind the audience that one of the fundamentals of marriage is the willingness of both members to subordinate themselves for their partner, irrespective of their gender.
How those who wish to stage Renaissance plays should respond to movements like the #MeToo campaign, the growing recognition and tolerance of the LGBT+ community and calls for fuller representation of disabled people and ethnic minorities is an ongoing debate; and not one that looks likely to be easily resolved. There is little doubt in my own mind that the play itself should always be paramount, and although there is no question that the diversification of our stages is something that we should be very proud of, a commitment to quotas for their own sake risks adding confusion to classical plays that are often next to impenetrable in the first place for audiences unfamiliar with them. However, none of this is to say that it cannot be done, or that we shouldn’t try; Audibert’s Shrew is strong evidence that it is possible to re-think these plays in radical ways and in doing so, indicate the true extent of their capacity.
The Taming of the Shrew is playing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31 August 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Shakespeare Theatre website.