I Never Thought it Possible or Likely…

What: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

When: 19th March 2019

The Royal Shakespeare Company when announcing their 2019 season said that they were going to show the relevance of Shakespeare’s writings to the modern era. There is no question that they have attempted this – although they could be accused of majoring only on one contemporary issue.

Like a percussionist surrounded by many instruments but beating on only one drum, they have taken up only the issue of gender. This meant that in the seldom-performed “Timon of Athens”, they left us wondering what the value of the change of gender was – although it did give some opportunity for strong female character actors in the principal roles. Very few of the audience would know the original play well enough to appreciate the difference that making all the lead characters female had made. Then there was As You Like It where the gender swaps caused a complete meltdown in the second half of the play as an already complex plot became just too untidy.

But with The Taming of the Shrew, by George, I believe they may have added in something worthwhile.

The clue though is in the phrase “added in” as this may almost be seen as an adaptation rather than having any semblance of the play as Shakespeare intended it. Of all Shakespeare’s plays The Taming of the Shrew is the one which most strongly depicts a 16th/17th century patriarchal society and does it without any hint or sense that the values espoused in it are regrettable and this makes it particularly hard to swallow for a contemporary audience. This is not naturally a play for a feminist audience.

So, along comes the RSC and sets this in a matriarchal society. This has the great advantage of allowing us to see how gross the play can appear if the shoe, so to speak, is on the other foot. And this is the production’s strength. All the traditionally male characters are played as female by females. And all the traditionally female characters are played by males as males. It takes a while to get used to a man being called Katherine, but you soon get used to it.

There are some complications here though.

The first comes, quite literally, from the very outset. In the play, as written by Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. It is performed for a drunken sot named Christopher Sly. It is not obvious what the intention of this framing was as it fails to continue throughout the bulk of the play but here it is entirely absent, and The Taming of the Shrew goes from being perhaps a gross comedy fit only for the drunken classes, to a depiction of life in “real” society. The removal of this device takes away the opportunity to consider the riddle and enigma of Shakespeare’s true intention in this play.

And the absence of Sly is only one major difference, Shakespeare’s plays obviously have little stage direction beyond those entries and exits. Now, in the original play, Kate is bullied by her suitor, Petruchio. Here, the male Kate is terrorised with psychological intimidation and lack of food etc in the usual way by the female Petruchia. But this is taken a step farther. Petruchia strangles Kate. Petruchia ties up and leads away Kate. We are left with the possibility that the matriarchal society is worse in modern eyes than the play REQUIRES Shakespeare’s patriarchal society to be – or that an ill-informed audience seeing the play for the first time and seeing only the reversal would see more to hate in the patriarchal society than has to be.

Mmm…

Fortunately, this doesn’t over-shadow the real insight that the gender-switch brings about and we are able to see how ugly the way the treatment of women is in this play was. However, some of the play loses itself in farce which means that some of the tension of seeing men being treated in this way is lost until the second half. If the production has a value, it is in that seeing how badly women have sometimes being treated by society at large and this farcical element takes away from the cold psychological intimidation we see being carried out before our eyes.

Strong performances?

Claire Price as Petruchia is good if a little too physical with Kate for my taste.

Sophie Stanton after a strong 7 Ages of Man in As You Like It floats around the stage humorously in a very long dress but that and her failure to be able to draw her sword are jokes which are good but go on too long and lose their effect. But despite those “one-trick ponies”, she is still one of the best things here.

Everyone else is solid and this is truly a good ensemble piece with a double-edged message. And the best RSC production for a little while. But let’s hope they don’t keep finding this gender theme in every play they consider producing – even if this is 2019…

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