April 4, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
The Taming of the Shrew (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The setting for the RSC’s 2019 The Taming of the Shrew, the latest in a long line of attempts to find a way of making the play palatable as a comedy for the twenty-first century, ventured into the realms of speculative fiction. Director Justin Audibert’s concept imagined an alternative sixteenth century in which women were the dominant gender: men wore their hair long and were effete objects of beauty, and women owned the property and did the wooing. In this environment, Audibert and the new RSC ensemble developed an occasionally provocative and occasionally insightful production that, however, raised more questions than it answered.
The speculative fiction aspect was heightened by the choice to cross-gender all characters except selected members of the working and servant classes – Grumio, the Tailor and Haberdasher, Petruchia’s servants. Beyond the gender swapping, then, men were established as a servile underclass, with noble husbands sitting on cushions at their wives’ feet, and male servants running around at the behest of their female superiors. This complicated the play’s gender dynamic, imagining a world in which men were more systematically subordinate, eliding the distinction between misogyny and institutionalised status difference.
The institutionalisation was especially important, in that it developed a world in which men were acquiescent – if not complicit – in their objectification and subordination. Noblemen and servants alike were beautified objects of adoration; in her first exit from the stage, matriarch Baptista (Amanda Harris) beckoned two male servants to her and walked out holding one in each hand. Men were kept around as objects of desire, perhaps even as licensed toy boys, and there was a certain amount of status even among these men, most notably in the case of James Cooney’s Bianco, who preened around his mother’s house, reclined seductively for the benefit of suitors, and effectively worked hard to make clear his own currency to the rich older women looking for their hot young thing.
Within this world, the ‘shrew’, Joseph Arkley’s Katherine, refused to play the game. Where most of the men were relatively short, Katherine was tall and lean with close-cropped hair. He had a great deal of potential power, both physically and vocally; on the two or three occasions when he rose his voice, it boomed across the stage; and when he lifted his hand to Claire Price’s Petruchia, he presented himself as a threat. The constraints of this world did not lend themselves to a Katherine who shouted and smashed things a la Elizabeth Taylor, who would have been tonally overwhelming here. Instead, Katherine was sullen, even sulky. He appeared first chewing on a piece of chicken which he threw at the assembled women, and scorned rather than railed at the society around him. This was the quietest Kate I have ever seen, his defiance shown in his withdrawal from a world that demanded his visibility.
As such, the dynamic between Kate and Petruchia was unusual in that Petruchia was training a Kate who was already quiet to be differently quiet. Katherine was no men’s rights activist or campaigner for emancipation; indeed, he showed very little interest in the fate of those of his own sex at all. And his own indifference to the women didn’t extend to active resistance. In his first meeting with Petruchia he circled her, the two exchanging repartee, but once Petruchia warned him (seriously) about striking him, he backed down. As much as Kate was individually defiant, he was also fundamentally accepting of his status in this world – he obeyed his mother and his fiancé, reluctantly, but consistently, and in that sense the exact nature of the need for his ‘taming’ remained unclear.
The play’s taming scenes were especially uncomfortable. Kate was stripped down to rags for most of them, debased by being made to sit on a stool, and kept in discomfort right up until the journey back to Padua. When Kate was finally fed some food, he ate it greedily and Petruchia stroked his hair while he did so. Price’s Petruchia was not a monster, and seemed genuinely attracted to and amused by Kate, her brash confidence matched by the state of her increasingly improbable periwig. Her version of taming was less violent than some, but more creepily intrusive, a version of Stockholm Syndrome that saw her using the smallest favours to introduce physical affection. For his part, Kate only showed strong emotion when being taunted by Richard Clews’s Grumio; he shouted at another man, but seemed afraid to raise his voice to a woman. Petruchia’s treatment of him played on that fear, which was Kate’s biggest self-imposed obstacle to active resistance, and as their bond developed, Kate learned the behaviours that stopped him being afraid of Petruchia – because he knew how to behave.
I dwell on this because, to me, it was the only explanation of a final sequence that saw Katherine bedecked in the livery of his wife, and strolling around Baptista’s house eating chicken again in an evocation of his first appearance, with a smile on his face. This Katherine followed Petruchia’s orders with a smile on his face, taking pleasure in doing as he was told, and delivering the final speech in all sincerity while Petruchia gazed on adoringly. As he finished, Petruchia grabbed him and started tearing off his clothes, before dragging him offstage for sex. But such a loved-up ending jarred badly with what had come before. Either Kate had genuinely fallen for Petruchia – a reading for which the severity of his despondency in the play’s second half had offered no justification – or he was so far gone in his indoctrination by Petruchia that there was no independent personality left. If that was the case, however, then there was no problematisation of this as an ending, and playing it for laughs seemed to enormously undermine what he had been through.
The regendering of the final speech allowed for some notable resonances, including the condemnation of men for making war, a rare moment when the production seemed to look outside of its own artificial conceit and address our society with its critique. In moments like this, it seemed a shame that the Sly framing device – which might have made sense of the thought-experiment of the gender reversals – was cut, as this production desperately needed some built-in commentary on its own implications. As it was, Kate’s quietness throughout actually made him seem like a very minor character, his sullenness preventing the development of a personality that would have contextualised his choices (if they were his) in the final scene. Petruchia was better served by the production, her wide-eyed fascination with Kate and her own disregard for the conventions of the matriarchy (including turning up in male clothes to the wedding) giving her a zest and irreverence that made sense of why the other woman were concerned about her.
The development of the broader society allowed for a fair amount of comedy, which touched on class as much as gender. Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia was a randy posh girl, come to town and immediately looking for the pretty boys on the street; her smittenness with Bianco allowed for a certain amount of laughter at her own expense, though her dumbshow of getting off with Bianco while Hortensia (Amelia Donkor) and Trania (Laura Elsworthy) looked on was one of the funnier bits of physical comedy. Trania was a highlight throughout, mocking her superiors’ mannerisms in an infectious way, her habit of ostentatiously holding up her arm slowly being taken up by other women on stage. Amy Trigg was a brilliant Biondella, zooming around the stage in her wheelchair in a way that exaggerated the speed of Biondella’s constant bringing in of messages; her garbled report of Petruchia’s arrival was a brilliantly fast set-piece, and her constant confusion at the machinations of her mistresses a delight. And Sophia Stanton got many of the best gags as the elegant Gremia, gliding along the floor as if on wheels. She spent much of the play trying to draw her sword, with abject failure, until finally managing to wield it in the last act and proving herself to be scarily adept with it. The behaviours of the women were powerful without losing their femininity, and one of the triumphs of the production was the divorce of ‘masculine’/’feminine’ traits from ‘powerful’/’subservient’ traits – in this world, women were still clearly women; it was just that those traits did not indicate submissiveness. Conversely, certain mannerisms such as the flicking back of hair for attention were re-coded not as ‘feminine’ but as subservient, the men growing their hair long instead.
The performances were of a high quality throughout, with a great deal of intelligent text work but surprisingly little vivacity; this wasn’t an especially funny production, but nor was it emotional. The artifice of the conceit instead left me engaged intellectually, spending as much time reading the play that existed in negative to this as the present text. The relative silence of Kate and the dominance of the women revealed by their reverse how small a role Kate can actually be, and how much the play is dominated by men (usually) deciding the fortunes of women. In many ways it worked better as an intellectual thought-experiment than as an entertaining production. But the abruptness of the ending, with its apparently unconcerned uniting in love of abuser and abused, left me struggling to work out quite what, in the end, this production wanted its audience to think.
Thank you to the Nottingham Shakespeare: Text, Stage, Screen students for their fantastic insights on this production ahead of me writing this review.