This RSC adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew can be watched on Digital Theatre Plus, which the University offers free access to via ELE.
Out of all of William Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew is one of the trickiest plays to perform from the perspective of the whole creative team. The play, which at the time of writing was seen as a lighthearted comedy, could now be described as ‘problematic’ at best. The premise of the play, a ‘shrewish’ young woman, Katherine, being ‘tamed’, or more accurately, abused, by her husband into submission, would now make any modern viewer shift uncomfortably in their seat.
With our current understanding of marriage and gender equality, it could be considered ignorant to stage the play in its original form. In order to work around this, the modern director could take many different approaches staging this production. In this particular production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, director Justin Audibert takes the audience to a fantasy historically matriarchal society, where women hand their gentle and sweet sons over to domineering and authoritative wives. Audibert hopes that this will offer a new, insightful perspective on power and gender relations, both during Shakespeare’s time and now.
One of the magical things about Justin Audibert’s production, working in tandem with the marvelously talented cast, is how physicality and expression make the play comprehensible and accessible, the ‘flowery’ nature of Shakespearean language becoming remarkably easy to interpret. Thanks to Audibert’s experience in making theatre for young audiences, he knows how to create a scene where understanding the sometimes burdensome Shakespearian language is less crucial. Even those who are terrified by the thought of a Shakespeare play, with the notion that they’ll spend the whole time baffled, are able to sit back and enjoy, and even laugh along with the jokes. Most notably, Emily Johnson’s performance as Lucentia is especially hilarious, and her subplot with James Cooney’s flamboyant Bianco keeps a light-hearted and comedic feel to the play, despite some of it’s heavy hitting content.
It is important, however, to address the limitation of the world which Audibert has created for his production. It would be difficult to argue that we are truly in a matriarchal society, where feminine characteristics are favoured over masculine. Despite the fact that women are playing the male roles, the defining characteristics of power and authority remain inherently masculine. While Claire Price’s performance of Petruchia is faultless in the way she balances an insidiously charming nature with abuse behind doors, highlighting the frightening way abusers can often appear charismatically trustworthy, the way in which she asserts power is still through masculine clothing and physical domination. Similarly, Joseph Arkely’s ‘rebellious’ Katherine’s costumes transition toward feminine as he becomes more meek and mild, with his final costume being a white dress. Therefore, I would argue that this ‘reimagining’ of gender roles does not turn the patriarchy on its head, but rather allows women to play the powerful male characters for a night. Our signifiers of submission and domination still remain the same, deeply rooted in the gender roles that we can recognize in our own society.
However, to refute my own point, Audibert himself has stated that the purpose of his play was not to ‘fix’ the originally problematic plot, but rather offer a fresh perspective to prompt thoughts in the audience’s minds. For example, my first critical thought was that the characters of Bianco and Katherine were under-utilized and under-acted, not being given enough time on stage. However, I now understand that this is ultimately down to how Shakespeare wrote his female characters. We have become used to male actors taking up most of the speaking time and desensitized to how little space the women get to express their thoughts, and this only comes to light when roles are reversed. Similarly, many of the plays most shockingly misogynistic lines stand out even more when spoken by a female actor. Whether we agree with it or not, we are used to women being put in their place especially in plays from the past, but Audibert’s new viewpoint snaps us out of this and allows us to reassess with what we’ve become ‘comfortable’ with seeing in historical plays.
Featured Image Source: Still via Royal Shakespeare Company // YouTube