The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Lowry Lyric

27 September - 3 October 2019: 3hr

Gender benders: Claire Price (Petruchia) and Joseph Arkley (Katherine) in Justin Audibert's production of The Taming of the Shrew. All pictures: Ikin Yum Photography

The RSC’s three-play season at The Lowry continues with a real puzzler: their gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew, directed by Justin Audibert.

In everything except the reversal of male and female it’s straight down the line, in-period, Shakespeare, the stage simply furnished with a rear gallery and a central entrance at the rear, the costumes and stage design Renaissance-style. The music and dance (Ruth Chan and Lucy Cullingford) is newly created for the show, but punctuates it in historically informed manner.

But – and it’s a very big but – almost every named character has swapped gender (Grumio’s still male, so are the tailor and haberdasher and some other servants). Most importantly, the Shrew of the title is a man (still called Katherine), while Petruchio is now Petruchia. It’s changed from being a male-dominated world, with women almost totally subservient, to one where power is exclusively female.

"Awful rule, and right supremacy", as Claire Price (Petruchia) observes to the audience at the end (getting a female cheer in the process), is in the hands of women, or as Audibert puts it, it’s England re-imagined as a matriarchy.

The result is considerable readjustment of pronouns, lord/lady, master/mistress and so on in the text, as the women are definitely women and the men, men – just with the authority roles reversed. Mr Katherine (Joseph Arkley) may be a stroppy youth to begin with, but he finishes up compliant, and in fact finds that quality pretty early in the story. If ever The Taming of the Shrew was interpreted as an example of coercive control rather than outright marital brutality, this is it.

So what’s the point? Well, the observation I’ve just made is perhaps one of the points. Simply gender-swapping Shakespeare’s story makes you think, and the thought it brings is mainly that his was a male-dominated world and we’ve moved on a lot since then. That’s why this comedy, if you stick to the original concept, hardly seems funny any more.

But here it’s funny, because the women, having all the power, are happy to behave as comic caricatures as far as the play’s concerned (Sophie Stanton’s Gremia is the stand-out there).

However, there’s more to it than that. Petruchia and Katherine are exceptions to any simplistic principle of female, instead of male, dominance in physical terms. There’s ambiguity there – for the wedding scene, Joseph Arkle has rouge on his cheeks and Claire Price is wearing breeches, not a skirt; and Katherine’s final speech about "our bodies… soft and weak and smooth" is left untouched, though spoken now of maleness. The "taming" of the title is done through words and commands far more than outright strength. And remember that a derivative of "shrew" is not just "shrewish" but also "shrewd".

If the role-reversed story works now in those terms, maybe we can learn something about how it might have worked originally at the end of the 16th century …

But perhaps I’m trying to go too deep. The entire show is skilfully acted, deftly directed and great fun in every way. Take it on that level and you won’t go far wrong.

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c2019 TheatreReviewsNorth