Barbican Theatre, London – until 18 January 2020
Guest reviewer: Heather Deacon
The RSC continues its inclusive season with a gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew that goes some way to highlight and parody just how messed up and old fashioned this play of an absurd and abusive patriarchy really is. All too self-aware but still imperfect, this production is nonetheless perfectly timed for a Handmaiden’s Tale world, with director Justin Audibert’s innovative inspiration shining through.
So it goes Baptista Minola announces to all of Padua that no one shall marry her much-desired son Bianco (a flamboyant James Clooney) until her outspoken, outburst-prone shrew of a son Katherine (Joseph Arkley) is married off. With an array of overtly keen suitors vying for a chance at Bianco’s hand, fortune seeker Petruchia soon finds herself well paid for her wooing services in a bid to pin down, and tame, the elusive Katherine.
Arkley clearly relishes this opportunity to reap the irony of his lines, unchanged but for the pronouns. He plays the role many a feminist critic would deem to be “where we are heading”, starved and mentally tortured into losing all his traditionally male qualities by Claire Price’s Petruchia.
It is interesting to note that while most male performers took the opportunity to play a traditionally female character by camping it up, Arkley as the exception, Price’s Petruchia is the only masculine played traditionally male character.
There are many an example of when it really shouldn’t have been funny but absolutely is, such as with Sophie Stanton’s Gremia’s lustfulness. If an older male character had practically drooled whenever he thought of a young woman, it would have been the opposite of charming. Stanton’s sight gags are the comic relief in a play laden with it, with Gremia echoing Mars Attacks’ lady spy alien silently floating across the stage to much audience guffaw.
But while undoubtedly thought-provoking, Audibert’s production fails to hit the mark, unable to shake off its other-worldliness. There remains a pervading sense that the characters just aren’t quite right and this in turn prevents our disbelief from being truly suspended. Nonetheless it remains an undoubtedly stimulating evening and well worth a visit, if only to witness the script re-imagined and reinterpreted – a pleasing rarity.
Runs until 18th January 2020Reviewed by Heather DeaconPhoto credit: Ikin Yum