The Taming of the Shrew (words on purple background)

June 6, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

The Taming of the Shew (RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon @ Broadway Cinema

I’ve already written at length about Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC, and a second viewing of it – this time courtesy of free tickets to the live broadcast, with thanks to the RSC social media team – helped clarify much of what makes the production work, but gave me little further insight into the central problem of the play, in its treatment of the relationship between Joseph Arkley’s Katherine and Claire Price’s Petruchia. This was a production concerned with outward appearances, but which I’m not convinced had fully thought through its implications.

Fascinatingly, the live broadcast put a great deal of emphasis on surfaces. A long opening montage gave lingering close-ups on the costumes, picking out the seams and buttons of Hannah Clark’s elaborate design. And a brilliant interval feature profiled the amazing wigs and the even more amazing wigs team, showing the level of care and attention that went into their making, while also stressing the importance of the wigs department to the well-being of the actors (and I was struck by resonances here with the recent Game of Thrones documentary, with its focus on Emilia Clarke’s wig-dresser). But perhaps inadvertently, the paratexts reinforced the sense that this was a production concerned with the look of the thing rather than the thing itself. Interviews with Arkley and Price talked about the enjoyment they had in playing roles that contrasted so strikingly with what they usually get to play, but Audibert’s contribution – which emphasised a broadly defined ‘relevance’ – copped out by saying he wanted audiences to be asking questions rather than coming away with answers. It’s an important idea, but did nothing to dispel my concerns that the production had a concept, but not the intellectual coherence to let that concept meet its potential.

Bridget Caldwell’s sensitive screen direction had a few issues with angles, with the camera at one point seeming to get stuck behind Trania, and at another managing to get another camera squarely in its view. But niggles aside, the oscillation between close focus that made the most of nuances, and a long view that captured the shapes thrown by the cast on the stage, worked to enhance the flow of a production dependent on these shifts. In a production which, whatever its flaws, allows women to fill the stage, Caldwell’s direction allowed them to fill the screen even more. The sheer power of this world’s matriarchs – Amanda Harris’s Baptista and Melody Brown’s Vincentia – came across well, with their roaring rage and sneering authority dominating the frame and helping establish the balance of power. Elsewhere, a beautiful extreme low angle framed James Cooney’s Bianco sprawling in the foreground while Katherine stood over him, for a moment showing just how terrifying Katherine could be when in full flow.

However, this moment brought home for me the strengths and weaknesses of the production’s conceptualisation of a male Katherine. Arkley is a tall, powerful man, and the moment where he went to strike Petruchia was a moment of genuine tension. While the production did a good job of showing Petruchia overpowering Kate in certain moments, including putting him in a headlock designed to make them look like a happy couple, it was Katherine who restrained himself for the most part. The self-repression, which only bubbled out into full throated shouts and lashings out on very rare occasions, made for a very quiet, subdued performance – which over the course of the production evolved into a very quiet, subdued performance. The taming, such as it was, was to turn the quietness from sulkiness into happy compliance. And this in turn led to a very different Petruchia, who was happy to be physical when required, but who predominantly wooed with the assumed confidence of the dominant gender and a huge smile on her face. Wide-eyed, sincere, and often softly spoken, Price’s Petruchia was the first I’ve seen who seemed to actually be wooing as much with (loosely defined) ‘kindness’ as with abuse.

The issue with this reading was Act 4. At the start of the play, Petruchia made no secret of her thirst for Kate, and their opening repartee played out as an elegant dance, with Kate slowly seeming to enjoy the game of back-and-forth, developing a smile at the ridiculous wooer, which disappeared when he realised what he was being coerced into. Kate’s frustration at being abandoned on his wedding day played as an instance of genuine upset and embarrassment, and his entreaty to Petruchia to stay for the wedding feast was soft and genuinely pleading. Then, skipping ahead to the return from the country, Petruchia teaching Kate how to agree with her made a continuous sense. The ‘taming’ was between two people attracted to one another, but with Petruchia insisting, persistently and even patiently, on terms and conditions, that Kate seemed happy to accept. By the end, ignoring the scenes in Petruchia’s house, it was possible to see a reading of this relationship that did open up questions about how far full consent in a loving relationship can operate in a society of fundamental, structural, gendered inequity.

The scenes of the taming, however, remained as upsetting as ever. Kate was forced to sit on a tiny stool, positioning him far below Petruchia. His desperate hunger – especially when contrasted with his constant eating in the earlier scenes – saw him stumble around the floor begging for scraps and licking an empty plate. The long and dull scene with the tailor and haberdasher added an additional element in which Kate looked longingly and lovingly at the cap and clothes prepared for him, a fascination with clothes which seemed out of keeping with his behaviour elsewhere. And while productions where Petruchio is openly violent are upsetting, I found the tone of kindly sympathy with which Petruchia treated Kate more sinister and insidious. These scenes seemed to point to a reading of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, but such a reading is difficult to reconcile with the unproblematically presented and apparently mutual tearing off of clothes with which the production finished.

While Audibert is right that it’s good for a production to open up questions without offering a one-sided take, the inconsistencies of tone and approach in the central relationship felt under-developed rather than complex. Arkley was compelling in his own way as Katherine, but the character was so repressed and internally focused that the really essential question – what was going on for him? – was too hidden from the audience. And the gender-reversed matriarchy, while a valid idea, felt similarly underdeveloped. I found myself longing for a sense of what, exactly, was holding Katherine back in his frustrated attempts at rebellion, especially when the women often shrieked and seemed unwilling or unable to defend themselves when Katherine broke from social decorum. We know, in a patriarchal society, the kinds of sexual, physical, emotional, mental violence that are institutionally enacted upon women and that create fear; I wish the production had been brave enough to explore how this translated into the imagined matriarchy.

These questions aside, there was much to enjoy in the more comic elements of the production. Clearly picking up on the character’s popularity, Sophie Stanton’s Gremia was the highlight. The camera tracked her extraordinary glide (as if on wheels) around the stage, but also drew attention to the innumerable bits of smaller comic business, from her constant struggles to draw her sword to her stumbling over Bianco’s name, her thirst for the long-haired young man reducing her to moans. And Laura Elsworthy’s Trania had a huge amount of fun when pretending to be Lucentia, her enormous performance requiring the camera to stay well back as she threw her arms vertically in the air to establish her authority, a gesture that the rest of the women gradually surrendered to as they started mimicking it. The long argument between Richard Clews’s Grumio and Charlotte Arrowsmith’s Curtis was another highlight, though the camerawork here was a little more frustrating; a signing Deaf actor disappears from the screen entirely when the camera isn’t on them, where speaking characters can continue to have their voices heard, and I’d have liked to see more wider shots that kept the two of them in sight together, rather than the reverse angles that focused on one at a time.

Audibert’s Shrew is a luscious production that, at the very least, should be commended for populating its stage with women and for showing up something of the inherent gendered dynamics in the play. As Arkley pointed out in the pre-show discussion, something like 75% of the lines are by male characters, and having those lines spoken by women gave this production a noticeable aural difference to other RSC productions; while a restrained, quiet Kate revealed just how little the character gets to speak for him/herself. Its an important provocation, even if I’d have liked the production to be much more clearer about what its provocation was.

Posted in Theatre review