The RSC’s Taming of the Shrew transports us to the 1590s, and to an imagined matriarchal society. This pseudo-Elizabethan world is full of colours; rich women wear sumptuous costumes in equally rich greens, blues and reds, in expensive fabrics of satin and velvet. Sword and dagger sheaths are integrated seamlessly into their fashions. Wealthy men wear doublet and hose with intricate floral patterns and gentle and beautiful earthy colours. Their long hair swishes behind them as they walk. The women boldly promenade in designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple and beautiful set of weathered wood and gold, with anachronistic iron-wrought stairs and balconies. In this world, Baptista wants to marry off her sons, Kate and Bianco, to the wealthiest woman who will have them. Especially Kate, the unruly, inappropriately sharp-tongued man that he is.
It is, quite simply, a gender-switched Shakespeare. For a play that is all about Elizabethan patriarchy. Things could get interestingly complicated.
Instead, the production comes off as a surface-level solution for giving women the chance to play male roles, to be the commanding presence onstage. The rules director Justin Audibert has established for how we read gender in this matriarchy don’t seem to be entirely worked out. As Petruchia seems to gain more power and show more abuse towards Katherine, Hannah Clark’s costume design for her becomes more masculine, with a loose doublet, and Katherine’s becomes more feminine – partly from the abuse of being denied clothing – but certainly also to show weakness. Dresses were shown in the first act to be associated with the matriarchs of power and riches, but here the nightdress suddenly becomes a symbol of weak femininity all the same.
Characterising Bianco as the subordinate man through his effeminate hair tosses and limp-wrists 1) wouldn’t make sense in a matriarchy in which performances of femininity would be associated with strength and power, and 2) to me and probably other spectators, the performance comes across as a performance of stereotyped homosexuality. The rough shows of wildness that Katherine puts on, shouting, swaggering, ferociously devouring a chicken thigh, don’t come off as uncivilised, but as typical, (overly?) masculine behaviour. Kate and Petruchia’s first meeting, in which their verbal spar ends with Kate slapping Petruchia yielded some gasps throughout the Barbican audience. Indeed, male violence is what needs ‘taming’ both onstage and in our own world. But the solution of pure obedience, attained through abuse, still isn’t the right answer.
That being said, the women thrive in the roles they are given. The Lucentia-Bianco sub-plot (which I admittedly forgot existed) is played with great fun by all the parties involved, including Laura Elsworthy as Trania, the servant who humorously takes on the role of her mistress with perhaps a little too much gusto. Amy Trigg gets to flaunt her skillful and comical manipulation of verse as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella, in a speech performed at double-speed. Sophie Staunton as Gremia glides with comical airs reminiscent of Mark Rylance’s almost supernatural comic glide as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Claire Price’s Petruchia is fascinating and riveting – her movements are sometimes brash, bold and swaggered, other times twitchy and contained. She plays Petruchia so that her intentions are hard to read: does she really think she’s taming Katherine out of love, or is the whole situation a game to her, with a dowry and a wager as her prize money? Charlotte Arrowsmith has great comic energy in her British Sign Language as Petruchia’s servant Curtis, and while it makes sense for everyone else around her to sign, the fact that we the audience are left to interpret her performance without a spoken-English translation does a disservice to Arrowsmith’s performance, making her performance come across as empty words. (Clearly progress is being made with merging Deaf and hearing performance, but there has to be a way to do so that honours both the movement and the meaning of BSL. I also have to say, having one of the servant’s name-signs be represented through the limp-wristed extension of a hand is as unfunny as the gestures of effeminate maleness that comprises Bianco’s character.)
Joseph Arkley’s Katherine is flat, but it’s hard to tell if it’s because of how little Shakespeare gives her to say, or if it’s the actor’s decision. It’s a good reminder of how little women are given to say in Shakespeare’s plays, ironically made visible by giving the words to a man. Kate’s final speech, delivered as a direct address to the audience, seems like an apology for patriarchy, and an appeal to the complexity of masculinity. But this isn’t a show about imagining masculinity expressed in means other than power and violence – this is a production that imagines if women were in that same role.
It’s a worthy attempt, but I think the results are clear: gender-swapping alone isn’t really ‘fixing’ the problems of the play, or of our world, if it repeats the power imbalances of the patriarchy. Surely the point of doing gender-swapped Shakespeare is to address the social problems within the play, and to potentially subvert both the sexism of the play and of our current casting system which reinforces discrimination against women, people of colour and disabled folks? Is it enough to have women onstage? What are they saying, what are they doing, what ideas and beliefs are they continuing to uphold?
The Taming of the Shrew is on at Barbican Theatre until 18th January 2020. More info and tickets here.