Review: The Taming of the Shrew @ The Barbican

Until recently, all that I knew about the plot of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was what I had seen in 10 Things I Hate About You: the frosty, hostile Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) softens when she accidentally falls for the slightly intimidating Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). On my way to London, to see this production I felt reasonably excited by the prospect of watching the original play. The idea of going to see a performance at the Barbican over the Christmas period sounds enticing – especially when it is to watch something as cultured as a Shakespeare play. Little did I know that I would not be so pleased afterwards.

The Barbican must be given praise – it is beautiful. Comfortable and well decorated with a variety of bars and friendly staff, the Barbican was the best theatre I have been to so far. I was lucky enough to be upgraded to a seat in the stalls, central and just three rows back from the stage. A perfect situation, considering that my student budget had initially only allowed me to buy seats up high, with a restricted view. The set was brilliant, the music was beautiful, and the musicians could be seen facing us from just above the stage, which I thought was a nice touch. The costume design was also impressive, and the clothes were a good match to the Elizabethan period.

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The acting itself was polished and the cast was diverse. They threw themselves fully into the plot and the energy in their opening lines sounded hilarious. One woman was particularly funny, managing to walk across the stage in her huge dress as though she were floating, for a moment I thought she might have been on roller skates. Each act opened with Tudor dancing and singing, a noteworthy spectacle, especially as this was a common theme of courtly entertainment in the Elizabethan age.

However, as the play moved on after the interval, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the actual plot of Shakespeare’s play, the details of which I was previously unaware of. I am amazed that this play is still allowed to be shown to a modern audience, seeing as the whole of the play’s latter half seems to glorify relationship abuse. In the original version ‘the shrew’ is Katherine, a woman who is too unpleasant for anyone to want to marry her. In this version at the Barbican, there was a conscious gender reversal and Katherine was played by a man who is wooed by a woman determined to secure him for his fortune. In an attempt to tame him, she starves him, forbids him from seeing his family and humiliates him until he does exactly as she tells him to. Watching the adapted film 10 Things I Hate About You did not prepare me for the horror of watching this misery unfold on stage. What was most troubling, is that the play was written comedically, as though the audience were supposed to find this physical and psychological torment amusing.

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The first half of the play was legitimately funny with no horrific actions, featuring mild comedy instead as the actors jokingly flounced across the stage. After that, the laughter ceased. However, what the gender reversal (which was done for every character in the play) in this production powerfully emphasized is that whether Katherine is played by a man or a woman, whichever way around the genders are portrayed, The Taming of the Shrew has a disturbing plot. It is yet more concerning to imagine that an Elizabethan audience would have found it comical, that any kind of relationship distress could be taken light-heartedly. The play ends with Katherine becoming completely obedient to his wife, proclaiming that any man who does not do what his wife tells him to is a selfish fool. I could not believe my ears. In light of this, I am not surprised at all that 10 Things I Hate About You diverges from the original plot; this play encourages domestic abuse, and as such is not fit for viewing.

It must be noted though that despite the fact that I believe The Taming of the Shrew – as a play – should be banned, the acting in this performance was of the highest quality, and the experience of the theatre itself was good. I would highly recommend going to watch a production at the Barbican, as long as it isn’t this play.

– Eleanor Braham 

 

 

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