The Taming of the Shrew review, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon: an interesting but underpowered exercise in gender-swapping

Claire Price in The Taming of the Shew - Ikin Yum Photography
Claire Price in The Taming of the Shew - Ikin Yum Photography

“Since its first appearance, [The Taming of the] Shrew has elicited a panoply of heartily supportive, ethically uneasy, or altogether disgusted responses”. So wrote the critic Dana E Aspinall in a 2013 volume of scholarship on “Shrew” – which, as a magnet draws iron filings, attracts the word “problematic”.

For those needing a memory-jog, this brutish comedy delivers its kicks – and uneasy laughs – via a madcap act of female subjugation. Described as “shrewd and froward… beyond all measure”, Katherine – elder sister of the supposedly fairer and more desirable Bianca (wooed by three suitors) – gets married off to the gold-digging Petruchio.

This Veronese reprobate answers (and curbs) his Paduan bride’s temper by controlling behaviour and outright privation. Literally starved into submission, Kate’s final speech of wifely obedience outraged Bernard Shaw, who, in contrast to those who have argued that the spectacle of brutality is implicitly feminist, declared that “no man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed”.

How do we feel when that same speech is delivered by a man – albeit still called Kate – in a radically gender-flipped revival that gives women the whip-hand? At the RSC, Justin Audibert’s production – part of a triple-pronged gender-fluid rep offering and a more general pattern of redressing the gender balance – switches the male chauvinism of Shakespeare’s imagined Italy for a full-blown matriarchy. The women don’t technically wear the trousers – there are stately mock-Elizabethan dresses sweeping the motley coloured floor – but in a serene way they rule the roost, dominant in number and bearing (the men are spindly, given to dainty curtseys).

Having started off as the sexily understated bad-boy of elderly Baptista’s household, taking the scissors to his effeminate younger brother Bianco’s hair, Joseph Arkley’s bolshy Katherine winds up the model of meekness. He has been tussled into a headlock by Claire Price’s enjoyably flamboyant, messy-haired Petruchia, lassoed on the wedding-day to be carted away, and subjected to the usual horror-show of mental and physical humiliations.

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price in The Taming of the Shew - Ikin Yum Photography
Joseph Arkley and Claire Price in The Taming of the Shew - Ikin Yum Photography

That fifth act capitulation has been delivered down the years at Stratford by some of the country’s finest actresses, with different emphases – from radiant acceptance past intelligent defiance to Michelle Gomez’s traumatised acquiescence a decade ago. Arkley combines vulnerability with quiet valiance, finding a hint of the erotic in submission not vanquishment – albeit the snipped line “I am asham’d that men are so simple” draws unkind audience cackles.

At its best, as here, the production prompts a neat double-take – you register the theatrically striking shift in the balance of power, one which nods to today’s “masculinity in crisis” tropes; yet you also recognise afresh the historical injustices meted out to women (along with the implied persistence of that patriarchal order). Often, the leads spark off each other nicely – when “Kate” relents and agrees to call the sun whatever “his” sadistic tormenter decides, this finally prompts a poignant softening and gesture of compassion from Price.

Yet for much of the time, the evening feels oddly underpowered. This oestrogen-powered world looks cosmetic, makes little practical sense; most of the female characterisation has a primly restrained, under-liberated air; and at no point was I persuaded the (sub-plot) female suitors would be gagging to bed the preening Bianco (instead of his sultry brother).

It’s an interesting exercise, perhaps an inevitable one now (one should mention that they’ve just attempted a similar approach at the Sherman, Cardiff, complete with men being required to take their seats after the women). But in trying to reframe what it means to make one sex second-class citizens, the production itself falls short of first-class status.

Until April 4. Tickets: 01789 331111;; tours from Sept to April 2020