The bejewelled leading women of society stride into view to a powerful fanfare, followed by their simpering male servants, curtsying and coy, in a very humorous opening scene for the gender swapped version of The Taming of the Shrew by the RSC. But this change to a matriarchal society and its impact on the story, is more interesting and much less obvious than expected, and thereby hangs the tale …
The Taming of the Shrew can be a difficult play for modern women to embrace, with it generally being read as a man (Petruchio) subjugating a woman(Katherine) to break her spirit, make her submissive and ultimately acknowledge the superiority of man. The expectation, therefore, is that the gender reversal will reveal even more keenly the misogyny of the original. In fact, what it exposes is the dominance of the explosive character of Petruchio/a over the apparent ‘shrew’ Katherine – and that this exists even when the genders are swapped. In which case, it must also be acknowledged that it is as much the audience’s reading, with it’s ingrained, societal biases to gender, that sees the original story as just about men subjugating women, rather than one character dominating another.
Petruchia is hyperactive, bold, brash, and uninterested in the expectations of society. She wants a wealthy husband, and beyond his wealth, has no care for any other attributes, because she knows she will make him hers. Claire Price relishes the role: she swaggers around the stage with a physicality that could be described as masculine – but actually, could simply be an individual not willing to play the society’s game of manners. But, on seeing Katherine for the first time, she is struck dumb, surprised by his youth and beauty, and now falls to wooing in earnest. An astonishing portrayal and absolutely joyous to watch.
Katherine, played by Joseph Arkley, first appears as a feisty, spirited character that has not been able to be contained or embraced by his family. He wants desperately to be accepted as himself but has been unable to find anyone with wit and strength enough to do so. Petruchia meets his fire with fire, shows him that he does not frighten her, but that if he can only accept her help, they will both be happier. Of course, the way she goes about it is rather unorthodox, bordering on the criminal, but he ends the play a happier man, so do the ends justify the means? Arkley presents Katherine with great subtlety, complexity and unexpected emotion, a very refined and enjoyable performance.
The supporting plotline, of Katherine’s younger brother Bianco being pursued by many suitors, gives opportunities to many of the ensemble cast to really ramp up the characterisation and humour. Emily Johnstone as the breathless and panting Lucentia in hot pursuit of Bianco: Laura Elsworthy as the exuberant servant Trania, fully embracing the opportunity of disguise to relish her uplift in society. James Cooney as Bianco is, literally, unrecognisable from previous roles, with flowing long locks and a mincing walk, the flirtatious younger brother and spoiled brat, used to being universally admired.
A wonderfully fresh aspect to the show is the introduction of Charlotte Arrowsmith as a fully fledged deaf character using British Sign Language, rather than ‘just’ a BSL interpreter presenting the story. She plays Curtis, one of Petruchia’s servants, and adds a great deal of depth and interest to Grumio’s lengthy Act 2 opening speech. In this performance, she also understudies as Vincentia, and all the characters around her also interact using BSL to support their speech. There is much laughter when Vincentia’s nuanced communication goes unnoticed by Baptista, who over-enunciates her words and speaks loudly, in an embarrassingly recognisable manner.
This production is ravishing to look at, with its velvet and silk Elizabethan costumes, golden tapestry-like backdrop and detailed panelling. Maintaining the setting in Shakespeare’s time only further highlights that the storyline stands on its own. This is an ebullient production, celebratory, funny and challenging. Gender-swap everything say I, there is still so much to learn.
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Do you travel by public transport and come across annoying fellow travellers? Then check out Phil Lowe’s hilarious new book! below. Recommended age 16+