Sophie Adnitt reviews William Shakespeare’s The Taming Of the Show presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre London.
The Taming of the Shrew
There’s been a lot of debate in arts circles as to whether we should continue staging The Taming of the Shrew. Propeller’s 2006 production presented this tale of spousal abuse with an all-male cast, highlighting the violence of the piece with harrowing results. In this version from the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Justin Audibert, the genders are played with again. This time Padua is a matriarchal society, where women walk the streets with swords slung on their belts and mothers barter off their subversive sons to the highest bidders. Baptista Minola (Amanda Harris, terrific) refuses to let her youngest Bianco (a hilarious and sorely under-utilised James Cooney) marry any of his many suitors until her eldest, the ‘irksome’ Katherine (Joseph Arkley) is matched. Enter Petruchia (Claire Price), who has come to Padua with one goal and one goal only – to marry money. When she hears of Minola’s wealth, Petruchia is confident she can tame the headstrong Katherine, by any means necessary.
Claire Price’s Petruchia is delightful to watch – initially all wild confidence, unabashedly taking up space and never checking herself. Then the abuse starts and you realise Petruchia is one of those nasty types who seems charming until they turn in a moment and show their horrifying true colours.
For all his roaring and raging, Arkley plays Kate with tremendous dignity. From the start he’s alone, ignored, constantly passed over in favour of Bianco and for a moment you wonder if the shrewishness is in fact shyness; an introvert in a world of big personalities (and they are big – there is very little subtlety to be found here). Where Bianco and the other men are bestowed with impractical flowing locks, Kate’s hair is cropped close to his head – again he is set apart from the others, unusual, an anomaly.
Then Kate and Petruchio meet, and an unstoppable force meets an immovable object; for a moment they seem ideal for each other. Kate enters from above and almost seems stopped in his tracks upon spotting Petruchia. They lock eyes for a moment before she turns away, and almost to herself needles her fingertips to her heart – oh no, he’s hot. It’s a rare glimpse of startling softness in a production that seems to favour bolshiness. There’s a sense that Petruchia does actually love her shrewish boy, and when she calls him to test his obedience at the end it reads like she’s defending him against the mockery from the others. In another life they could be a good match, but not in this world.
Because at the end of the day this is still a play about an abusive relationship and things turn seriously uncomfortable in the second half of the evening as Petruchia slowly wears away Kate’s resistance and nobody dares step in to help. Arkley as Kate presents a gripping study in hopeless, lonely heartbreak. Whilst everyone around him is playing the show as a farce, dashing in and out of the many doors of Stephen Brimson Lewis’s beautiful set, Arkley plays it as a straight drama – even a tragedy. Only at the end of the play does he concede, flopping his hand beneath his wife’s foot with an exaggerated jolt that prompts more laughs than feel appropriate. Kate finally understands the genre she’s found herself in – but at what price?
Elsewhere in a remarkable cast Sophie Stanton is a comic delight, gliding about the stage as if she’s on castors, and Laura Elsworthy’s sense of fun as wily Trania is irresistible. But does this gender switch add anything to this rather unpleasant play? For one thing it highlights how poorly the daughters of the original play are spoken about, like property to trade. And aside from Kate’s famous speech at the end, and a bit of back and forth with Petruchia, he doesn’t get a whole lot to say compared to some of Shakespeare’s other heroines. It’s kind of alarming that a woman can stand in the background and have no input on the conversation and it’s noticed a lot less than in this case where a man is silenced – where you find yourself thinking ‘Huh. So Kate and Bianco haven’t said… anything at all… for quite a while…’
‘Shrewish’ behaviour is more acceptable in our world for men – a man can be an ‘irksome, brawling scold’ and he’s excused as a ‘lad’. When a woman behaves that way she’s inherently wrong, and must be tamed. It’s interesting then to be presented with a world where ‘boys will be boys’ just won’t fly. In this guise, Shrew becomes a play about deeply flawed, very clever women with the agency and confidence of men; who are imperfect and make really stupid plots and yet still get away with it all.
If I had to pick a main flaw in this interpretation, it’s Audibert’s apparent lack of sympathy for Kate. In favour of putting the laughs back into this comedy (and he does, it’s admittedly very funny, especially in the Bianco scenes), Kate feels shortchanged. The audience isn’t permitted any time to consider the abuse subjected to Kate before the laughs are back again – it feels a little like it’s being swept aside so we can get back to the laughs.
Do we need to stop staging Shrew? I say no – but like Arkley in this otherwise fascinating production, we need to start playing it like the tragedy it is.
Until 18 January 2020 at Barbican Theatre, London