REVIEW OF ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRODUCTION
The Taming ofthe Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s mostchallenging plays to produce. It was written in a different age and we makeallowances for that. But the mistreatment, abuse, humiliation, debasement andalmost dehumanization of a woman is unacceptable in any age.
Directors have triedto find ways around it and some have been more successful than others. DirectorJustin Audibert has hit on the idea of gender change. The men become women andvice versa. Baptista (Amanda Harris) who has two daughters to marry becomes amother with two sons, Katherine (Joseph Arkley) and Bianco (James Cooney) tosend to the altar.
Bianco’s suitorsare Hortensia (Amelia Donkor), Gremia (Sophie Stanton) and Lucentia (EmilyJohnstone). Katherine is wooed by Petruchia (Claire Price) and the rest of themale characters including most of the servants become women and the reverse.
Aside fromPetruchio’s treatment of the shrew Katherine as he “tames” her, the play hasnumerous comic scenes and Audibert exploits them all for laughter. Lucentiachanges places with his servant Trania (Laura Elsworthy) in order to pretendthat she is a tutor and thus gain access to Bianco. When Lucentia needs hermother Vincentia (Melody Brown) to negotiate the marriage settlement, she gets themerchant Pedant (Hannah Azuonye) to pretend that she is her mother. Then her realmother arrives with hilarious consequences.
The old foolGremia woos the young Bianco and the clever servants know how to survive theirmasters in the best tradition of comedy. You should see Sophie Stanton glideacross the stage! Audibert has the fine cast do justice to all thesecomplications.
Claire Pricewith a big orange wig perched on her head looks almost androgynous as Petruchiaand once she begins her taming mission is relentless. A domineering andmarvellous performance. Arkley’s clean-cut Katherine does not stand a chanceagainst that virago. James Cooney as Bianco looks almost effeminate with hislong hair while Emily Johnstone as Lucentia is not to be trifled with.
Richard Clews asPetruchia’s servant Grumio is hilarious as is Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s servantBiondella. Laura Elsworthy as Trania is also up there.
Audibert doesaway with the induction scene, the framing device using Christopher Sly. It canbe put to good use but it can also prove to be a bore.
The programtells us that the play is set in the 1590s where “society is a matriarchy.” Thegorgeous costumes are sixteenth century chic and there is no attempt to alludeto current events or attitudes. Hannah Clark gets full marks for the costumesthat are a pleasure to watch. Women are the dominant sex, of course. For mostof the production this seemed like a pleasant change. We are quite used tohearing about abused women and perhaps some men may be shocked by seeingchauvinist pigs get their comeuppance but it has its fun side.
But it isdifficult to swallow the play lock stock and barrel. There is no attempt tolessen the impact of abuse and humiliation meted on Katherine. He just takesit. Some irony, some indication of love to make us aware that there is hope forthe couple? Nothing.
Even Katherine’sfinal speech “Fie, fie! Unknit that threat'ning unkind brow/ And dart notscornful glances from those eyes/ To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor” isspoken with fervor. There is room for some irony, a gesture, a body movement totell us that things are not as bad as they seemed but there is none.
Aside from somequalms, this is a well-acted and superbly directed production that providessome unexpected pleasures.
The Taming of the Shrewby WilliamShakespeare played until January 18, 2020 at theBarbican Theatre, London, England. It now continues its tour in Canterbury,Plymouth, Nottingham, Newcastle and Blackpool on various dates. Full detailshere: https://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/The Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann