FringeReview UK 2019
Justin Audibert re-genders and directs The Taming of The Shrew for the RSC. Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ set is mostly clear of anything more than a few props, bare-boards with different woods, cleanly lit by Matt Peel; whilst the décor’s concentrated on actors: Hannah Clark’s late-Elizabethan costumery and wigs, supervised by Laura Rushton. Ruth Chan’s harpsichord-riffed score evokes Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock via Giles Farnaby. There’s quotes from Maddalena Casulana. It’s all directed by Lindsey Miller and supervised by Gareth Ellis, with sound design by Claire Windsor. Lucy Cullingford’s movement is supplemented by fight-directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. Till January 18th 2020
You’d think there’d been a race to re-gender Shakespeare’s most gender-difficult play, The Taming of The Shrew. It desperately needs a new rationale; sheer sexual attraction alone, which revivified it briefly from the 1980s, won’t do. And there are far darker readings this text positively invites.
Jo Clifford, whose seminal 1985 Losing Venice recently revived at the Orange Tree essayed one version in Cardiff, rooted in hard-won affirmation. Justin Audibert’s for the RSC has transferred to the Barbican.
Audibert’s isn’t like the Globe’s second season of gender-fluid productions. Here, everything’s mirror-reversed. We’re in a matriarchy, Petruchia decides she’ll be the one to tame the termagant eldest son Katherine, which must happen before his brother Bianco can marry.
It’s a wonderful idea, and refreshingly easy to produce dominant women strutting and kicking in wigs – Claire Price’s Petruchia is exhilarating, with an effortless shrugging-on of big shoulders and cheery voracity. But what happens to latent male violence? Joseph Arkley’s Katherine is a sullen boy, not a sullen brute. He sulks rather than spits, growls like a terrier though doesn’t fight like one. A Shrew without danger – from Petruchia or Katherine – is dangerous.
It’s exceptionally stylish, in-period to the point of overwhelming. Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ set is mostly clear of anything more than a few props, bare-boards with different woods, occasional use of the gallery with added doors and embossings, distressed in a light turquoise: which distinguishes it from the monochrome say of the Measure for Measure production also in repertory. It’s the most beautiful-looking of all three productions. Behind a bank of pink clouds on cerulean look like a Tiepolo backdrop, changing with lighting. It’s cleanly lit too by Matt Peel with particular atmospherics for early morning with the servants just up.
The décor’s concentrated on actors. Hannah Clark’s late-Elizabethan costumery – strong on reds russets saffrons and some Brunswick green, is sumptuous. That’s nothing to the wigs though, whether Bianco’s smooth black or Petruchia’s punk-bright ginger: they’re stunning and believably 1590s.
Indeed their only besetting sin is to make actors look like each other, rendering it occasionally difficult to tell who’s who underneath them, early on. With such reversals it’s a women-led cast and their wigs tend to fuse visually. It’s a code you get used to.
Ruth Chan’s harpsichord-riffed score evokes Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock via Giles Farnaby. There’s quotes from Maddalena Casulana, increasingly famous as the first woman to publish her music. It’s punchy, memorable and would grace far more than Blackadder 2. Directed by Lindsey Miller at the keyboard with five musicians, it’s supervised by Gareth Ellis, with sound design by Claire Windsor. Lucy Cullingford’s movement is supplemented by fight-directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.
It’s Petruchia’s whipping-in Katherine as ‘my goods, my chattels … my any thing’, that recalls the inherent savagery of Shrew. There’s the bullying-in of wooing, where Katherine’s banished from the run of ‘household Kates’ but at the same time reduced to homely Kate by nomenclature. A flurry of sub-plot intrudes and a third of the way in during Act II, it momentarily threatens to become unclear, but subplots take star-roles from Act IV.
Savagery re-emerges as right after marriage Petruchia forces Katherine to route-marches, falling in mud, cruel food-snatching with sleep-deprivation and even after subduing him still proclaims a lasting marriage is based on ‘awful rule and right supremacy’. Claire Price exalts here and Cullingford’s way with movement is to invent an inventory of strut-walks for the women – which dispatches stage-business with élan.
Amanda Harris’ commanding Baptista is two-thirds materfamilias and one-third dominatrix, with a bustling physicality to match. It apparently cows the younger brother: James Cooney’s Bianco (his name is masculinized) is all smirk and smoothie, lustrous and vain in his wig. This Bianco’s very good at simpering his way to fortune, as rival women buzz delectably for his hand.
Cullingford’s power-walks serve Sophie Stanton’s uproarious Gremia well too – she and rivals seem moving on castors or roller skaters as they sizzle for Bianco like dodgems. Emily Johnstone’s Sloaney Lucentia by contrast is lost without Laura Elsworthy’s traditional smart-servant Trania, master of awkward-scene improv and mastermind of their elopement with Bianco. Amy Trigg’s Biondella gets a whoop of applause for her breakneck-delivery of updates in one breath. Then caps it: ‘I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit.’ Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia though manages to snatch some dignity at the end, as the poor third of suitors.
It’s Petruchia’s servant Richard Clews coming into his own from Act IV (no, sometimes more than that) where the sub-plot thickens and makes this production so much more vibrant, with a host of smaller roles buzzing round him and Clews getting struck which shouldn’t be any funnier than what happens to Dromio in The Comedy of Errors. Clews’ part should gender-reversed too; at this point it seems Audibert just gives up on logic for the sake of classic violent slapstick. It’s rare to see this part of the play at all, and doubly welcome.
There’s fine singing and ensemble work too from Charlotte Arrowsmith, Aaron Thiara, Hannah Azuonye, Leo Wan, Michael Patrick, Alex Jones and Alexander Mushore. All this company naturally redeploy to different, higher-profile work in the other two productions.
The arrival of the much-abused Vincentia (Melody Brown) – Lucentia’s mother who sets the seal on the second half – is infinitely more satisfying here, redolent again of the best of The Comedy of Errors. Certainly its energy is conjured and prefigures in this slightly earlier play, which does much to rescue it. That’s high praise.
There is though a reckoning, and here finally Arkley’s Katherine comes into his own, the only one obeying his mistress’ summons, but giving a measured, sober and strangely winning speech on the absolute right of the wife.
Releasing the ingrained dynamics of misogyny and patriarchal abuse in the era of #MeToo is more than essential: flipped this way the absurdities glare. Anything disturbing should immediately make us wonder why we uneasily put up with Shrew in its normal gender alignment.
Paradoxically what’s needed is the threat of male violence, and to see that crushed. That still doesn’t resolve the ‘disagreeables’ in Keats’ phrase, of how on earth to live with this play. A 1978 ‘30s-style RSC production with Paola Dionisotti and Jonathan Pryce leaves them both appalled: they realise what Dionisotti’s submission speech means.
It used Shakespeare framing narrative that only amateur productions tend to use now: drunk tinker Christopher Sly, baited and left stupored, whose dream this might be. He provides a prologue and very brief epilogue that physical comedy might extend. It’s a way in; there aren’t many.
This Shrew has though settled into itself since Stratford, indeed seems a settled classic reading. What Audibert’s production achieves too, is to highlight how good the play is just where we’re not looking for it.