REVIEW: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC

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  1. Society is a matriarchy. 

The women hold the lands, the businesses, the titles, the wealth, and the power. 

The RSC reimagines William Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in a revolutionary, revelatory new version that puts women at the forefront of an otherwise male-dominated play. 

Model son and perfect husband material Bianco has everything going for him – and the suitors to match, all who are in awe of his beauty, his modesty, and his mildness. Unlike his older brother Katherine that is – a shrew, whose tempestuous nature keeps others at an arm’s distance. When their mother, Baptista Minola, decrees that Bianco cannot marry unless Katherine weds, Bianco’s suitors set out to find someone strong, determined, perhaps even mad enough to take him on. Enter Petruchia.

A thrilling battle of the sexes, this is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ like you’ve never seen it before. 

With stunning Elizabethan design, the play explodes onto the stage in a version that “doth fit the time” of today – the 21st century ‘Me Too’ era.

Although it is hard to discern just what kind of effect this play would have had on its contemporary audiences, it’s no surprise that a badly handled production today could well go down like a lead balloon, with modern audiences unamused, shocked, even disgusted by the brutal treatment of Katherine. In the trusty hands of director Justin Audibert, this production soars. It does not oppress, it elevates.

The production omits the original framing narrative that details the drunkard Christopher Sly being tricked into thinking he is a nobleman, the story that follows a play put on for his diversion. The absence of this here suggests that this story is something more than a farce ‘put on’ for the simple pleasures and distractions of others – standing alone of its own volition, it is a serious play with serious themes, exploring the nature of men and women, portraying certain behaviours as an example of how not to behave, and therine lies its irony. 

With a tone celebratory of women, the plays screams for equality, and from the moment it starts and the women assemble on stage, ruff-wearing Elizabethan Avengers, we are drawn in by a powerful display of female unity and strength. Even as the men join them, the women continue to dominate, leading the dance as they lead society, their lavish costumes a symbol of their wealth and standing.  

In this version, the tame-ee becomes the tamer, with woman, tamed in the original text, the one who now does the taming, as a female Petruchio, here named Petruchia, attempts to bend the male Katherine to her will.

The result, rather than the continued oppression of one sex, is one of equality, as during Katherine’s speech at the end of the play, we find there is a joining together of, not just people, but of ideals and values, a marriage of true minds. There seems to be a mutual understanding, love and respect in both Kate and Petruchia. 

When Kate lowers his hand for Petruchia to tread upon, suggesting himself to be beneath her, at her beck and call, to be trampled upon at her will, instead Petruchia lowers herself, takes his hand in hers, and raises him up, and such a levelling brings with it a peace, a harmony, and a unity.

Petruchia, similar in many ways to Kate, sets out to fight fire with fire, to give him a taste of his own medicine, and we find out what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Much like the paradox, however, the force of Petruchia’s will and wit, unstoppable, cannot be stopped by Kate, and eventually he is moved by her. 

Petruchia uses methods of deprivation and psychological torture – Kate is starved, dehydrated, lacking adequate clothing, and is commanded to agree with everything Petruchia says, even when it defies all reason and logic. 

After falling off a horse, Kate enters wearing only a long white shirt, now muddy and sodden. He is clothed with wretchedness, his temper stripped and his ill humours exposed with no concealment, as Petruchia’s wily methods allow her to see him figuratively naked, in order that she might dress him with humility, modesty, and obedience.

Their first meeting, a highly charged battle of the sexes, is thrilling to watch. A shocked Kate, who likely has never been spoken to like this before, has his wits matched by Petruchia, who he makes a point of accusing as mad when rejoined by family and friends. When Petruchia commands him to take her hand, he jumps up and does so, immediately and instinctively, to his own surprise as well as the surprise of others, in particular his mother. Several other such examples of his increasing obedience as his is tamed are scattered throughout the production which, by its close, sees a shocked obedience become a willingness to obey. 

At the end of the play, Kate wins a wager for Petruchia by being the only one of three husbands to come when summoned – he even fetches the other two men, and chastises them, explaining why the should be obedient to their wives as subjects are to their Queen. This speech is not one of a broken man – rather, one of a man who has achieved a realisation, arriving at a resolve to change his ways, becoming more agreeable to those who love him, and those he loves, arriving at love and contentment on all sides. 

Though their relationship may begin as turbulent and problematic, it ends as the strongest relationship of all, with a deeper understanding and a more profound respect on both sides.

Claire Price is spectacular as spirited swaggerer Petruchia, whose intelligence, wit and proud perseverance tames Joseph Arkley’s headstrong, obstinate shrew Katherine, throwing chicken drumsticks around the way a child thrown toys from a pram.

James Cooney’s hair-flipping, long-locked brunette Bianco, who wouldn’t look out of place in sumptuous television series ‘Versailles’, is the model man, the one with all the suitors, and has a romance of his own to boast of, with Emily Johnstone’s determined Lucentia, who disguises herself as a  tutor in order to gain access to Bianco.

Laura Elsworthy returns to the RSC, this time as Trania, whose Northern accent gives way to an exaggerated posh accent and outlandish arm movements when she parades around pretending to be her mistress Lucentia.

Sophie Stanton positively glides as Gremia, suitor to Bianco, who is often rendered breathless, if not speechless, overwhelmed by her passion for the younger man. Stanton has some of the best and funniest moments in the production, and she excels in delivering the required level of hilarity.

In her RSC debut season, Amy Trigg is excellent as Biondella, and Richard Clew’s camp and cheeky Grumio is a delight.

At the back of the stage, above the Elizabethan architectural design, is a rich blue and gold backdrop, possibly suggestive of land and water upon a globe or map of the earth. The effects of this are numerous – the powerful elements earth and water representative of Petruchia and Kate, Petruchia eroding Kate the way waves do the rocky, stubborn cliffs on a coastline. The outlines of continents are like giant tectonic plates, the shifting of which mirrors the gender shift and role reversals of this invigorating new version. The universality of Shakespeare and his works is also springs to mind.

Forget ‘10 Things I Hate About You’. There are countless things you’ll love about this production.

 

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