The Taming of the Shrew

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The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican

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This is my first proper Taming of the Shrew – it’s pretty rare, six years in, that I manage to get a new play, so there is that*. Still, it has big, massive boots to fill in terms of telling the story of 10 Things I Hate About You. If you know a better modern Shakespeare adaptation tell me**.

The RSC decided to play this one gender bent (all hail the matriarchy!), which gave me pause. If you’re going to play wholesale with gender roles, it seems to me you should either go balls out*** and just say fuck it our female actors are so good we don’t need men (see: the Donmar Trilogy for how to do this brilliantly) or you decide to use a 400 year-old play to say something about modern gender roles (see: Measure for Measure, even if I’m still not sure that what the director wanted to say was what she did say). This didn’t seem to fulfil either brief, and I was left wondering exactly why they bothered. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it!

Starting with the looks – this was a Jacobean show, the stage a set of wooden panels and the props limited to some very nice tables and the occasional lute. The men in their floral doublets and with loose hair definitely worked for me as a softer take on the apparel of the day, but I could have done with a little more thought on updating women’s costumes to reflect active, outdoor lives. Would split skirts have been too much for ask for? The dresses and the up-dos did give most of the women a great Red Queen vibe, but it was notable that Petruchia – the only character who really romped – did so in trousers. And sorry, as a modern trouser-wearing woman, her wearing doublet and hose really didn’t feel nearly as transgressive as Petruchio in a skirt would have been (still would be). On the other hand, there was something surprisingly touching about Katherine**** in just his stockings and shirt – the only character we see in such a state of undress.

I found Kate very passive for a supposed shrew. I wonder if the short running time made them cut more of the initial scenes of rampage – all we had was eating a chicken leg and one spat with his younger brother. Oh, and he had short hair – the only member of the cast to have it. But then of course I wonder – would this have been enough to label a female Kate a shrew? Frankly, Beatrice seems to me to be a bigger bitch and no-one thinks she is unmarriageable. Joseph Arkley brought a wonderful physical eloquence to Kate’s limited lines – I found myself watching for his reactions to other’s speeches sometimes in preference to watching them. But his quietness sat rather better with his first amazement and then weariness at Petruchia’s handling than with any earlier harridan tendencies there might have been.

By contrast, Claire Price was a big fizzling ball of energy as Petruchia – with gloriously demented hair and all the unpredictability of a Catherine Wheel. What stood out for me were odd moments (such as when she said she did it all in care of Kate and asked if anyone knew a better way to tame a shrew) which made her seem almost to be coming from a place of kindness in her attempt to tame Kate. Is that the gender bias working again, I wonder – that it is easier to believe that she wanted to break her husband’s shrewish spirit to do him good than merely to make her life easier?  There was at least one other moment where reversing the gender of the couples made you re-think their relationship and our remaining double standards – where Kate strikes Petruchia. Still – still! – this modern audience could not avoid an intake of breath at a man hitting a woman – interesting to note, and I don’t think a woman hitting a man would have got the same response.

I was about to say on to the comic relief! But it’s really all comic relief, isn’t it? On to the other characters in any case. Lucentia and Trania were a pair of likely lads – Emily Johnstone bluff, hearty, quite stupid, Laura Elsworthy very much of the taking-a-mile school of servantry. Unfortunately, for me, both performances rather tipped over the line from broad farce to foolish antics – Trania’s fourth-wall-leaning flourish (complete with its own musical riff) seemed to have been given in place of a clear characterisation (was she in love with Bianco herself, or merely having too much fun playing her mistress?), while Lucentia and Bianco’s amorousness had some of the light touches which suggested serious thought as to how this matriarchy worked (like Bianco pulling down his ruff so Lucentia could kiss his neck) but then swerved straight into the kind of over overblown antics we got up to mucking around during school theatre productions. Actually that’s rather how the pair came across in general – as silly boarding school types rather than young men about town.

The matriarchs fared rather better – Baptista, Hortensia and Gremia all had the kind of presence you would expect of sober women of business, and Hortensia and Gremia’s attitude to marriage came across as believably based in privilege. But in terms of movement, this is where the costumes let them down – they were simply too big to allow for action (even as they provided part of that presence). While I enjoyed Gremia’s Dalek-impersonating**** glide, it didn’t fit for a woman of business (the rest of the audience got a disproportionate amount of enjoyment out of it though – especially when she did it backwards) and I noticed even she, every so often, felt the need to stride out beyond what was possible with indiscernible steps.

The push for laughs was sometimes at the expense of the drama. Amy Trigg’s breakneck delivery of one of Biondella’s more comic speeches got applause, but if it had been taken a little slower, it might have got laughs for the lines and not the breath control. And while I very much enjoyed the live music (even Trania’s flourish), my theatrical companions found it a touch too loud – and the singing seemed unnecessarily amplified. On the other hand, the gloriously flamboyant stage hands – all male (and with long loose hair) – fitted the high-theatrical staging without breaking the mood.

I was expecting not to enjoy the play for its attitude towards love (or at least relations between the sexes). Instead I found myself vexed by production decisions which took me away from the action or which seemed to suggest the team had decided not to take the play seriously themselves. So 10 Things still wins for now – but I’m more keen to see other productions of this problematic play.

 


* Plays still outstanding include Henry VIII, obviously, and Romeo and Juliet. I know! Don’t ask me how I’ve managed to miss that one!

** Please, please tell me. I would love to see it. And oh god I just looked it up and 10 Things is 20 years old and therefore hardly modern and SEND HELP.

*** Oh, that’s an unfortunate choice of phrases. Sorry.

**** Katherine was male and I’m not sure why they couldn’t find a male name to fit. Christopher and Kit would surely have worked? I didn’t notice a lot of iambic pentameter and if there was and it could handle the hacking about of all the other gender changes, it could surely handle “Kiss me Kit”.

***** Or at least Rylance-impersonating – find the original here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDPT2e26SgY

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