Review: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC)
Note: The tickets to this screening were gifted by the RSC in exchange for an honest review.
Going in to this screening of the RSC’s current production of The Taming of the Shrew, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the general gist of the plot - although that’s like saying you know Hamlet because ‘it’s the one with the skull’. Thankfully some friends had begun my Shrew education with 10 Things I Hate About You in the not-so-distant past, so I wasn’t going in entirely blind.
For those of you who might not know, The Taming of the Shrew is about Katherine, who is married to her husband and ‘tamed’ of her terrible habits (such as speaking her mind and not standing for all this patriarchal nonsense.)
This production flipped all of that on its head. In this production’s world we exist not in a patriarchy, but in a matriarchy. And let me tell you, it made my head hurt. A lot. Nothing highlights how ‘normal’ a patriarchal society feels by having to get your head around women being entirely in charge, and seeing men instead being the ones suppressed. Having Baptista, Hortensia, and Gremia talking with all the power and authority and weight as if they were sixteenth century men took quite some getting used to. As the director said, Shrew isn’t a play they wanted to ‘fix’; they wanted to highlight the problematic nature of the play from a totally different angle.* And boy, do they do that.
Nothing showed this more than when Petruchia (Claire Price) arrived. Come to town to marry Katherine, Petruchia is engaging and dynamic and seems like a great person (I actually sat there thinking Claire Price would be an excellent Beatrice or Rosaline!). But that all changes so quickly on the wedding day that it’s enough to make your head spin. Petruchia refuses to follow tradition, turning up in clothes that look like they’ve been dragged through a bush backwards, and becomes furious at any challenge to her way of acting, behaving, speaking - anything. The change from witty and engaging to emotionally manipulative and abusive smacked me in the face before I’d had chance to see it coming.
This made the second half of the play an absolutely unflinching presentation of an abusive relationship. Petruchia switches from loving to violent to controlling to emotionally manipulative, in ways that have you weeping for poor Katherine. This was highlighted all the more by the gender role reversal; Katherine (Joseph Arkley) was so expressive and haunting, even when she was forbidden to speak. And the scene where Katherine finally broke, doing whatever Petruchia commanded, was so full of pathos that it was hard to remember that this is supposedly a comedy.
It was this bleakness that made the changes from Katherine’s scenes to the comic wooing of Bianco sit very uncomfortable with the audience - as intended. How can we feel comfortable at the three women fighting over Bianco’s love, when all they probably want to do is control them?
That said, Emily Johnstone plays an excellent Lucentia, mooning over Bianco, and plays the comic sequences beautifully. Her scenes with Trania (here played by Laura Elsworthy) are really entertaining, and play to all the strengths of a usual Shakespeare comedy: disguises, people pretending to be other people in the name of love, confusion when those disguises go awry… It’s familiar territory for anyone who has seen Shakespearean comedies, and it offers a little relief from the horrors of Katherine’s storyline.
But the scene from this production that stood out the most for me was the final scene, where Petruchia crows over the other women as she shows how well she has ‘tamed’ Katherine. Both Price and Arkley are sublime in this scene; the former showing the imperious command of a controlling wife, and the latter really showing the shell that Katherine has had to become in order to survive his marriage.
The casting generally was excellent in this production; every actor was interesting and engaging, from the protagonists to the servants. I was also pleased to see both a wheelchair-using actor and a deaf actor cast in this production - something I had never seen in theatre before (which is a whole other blog post!) But both characters were played excellently, and are proof that having BSL alongside Shakespeare is absolutely no impediment to enjoyment of the play. I also really loved the music that accompanied this production - something I’ll be looking up when the RSC releases its usual accompanying CD.
Overall, an absolute fantastic evening of theatre. Funny, subversive, shocking - and proof Shakespeare can and does remain relevant to even the most modern of audiences.
The Taming of the Shrew plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 31st August.
It then plays at the Barbican, London, from 5th November - 18th January, as well as being on a national tour. Details can be found here.
All photographs from www.rsc.org.uk
*You can read more of the director’s thoughts behind the gender-swapping here.