If you can’t decide whether a comment is sexist or not, I always think it’s worth imagining what it would sound like if it was said by someone of the opposite sex. Imagine, for instance, Miss World commentaries from the 1970s spoken by a woman about a bunch of men, and it doesn’t sound right. Pretend the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing are men and then say what the female presenters say about the bare-chested male dancers as if they were talking about women. You soon come to a helpful conclusion.
When you consider those things that men are sometimes apt to say about women, or how they behave with them, or how a male-dominated society treats women, you can probably think of a number of ways in which things ought to change. Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew sheds light on the dark area of how men have traditionally ruled the roost over women in a fierce, funny and often ghastly new production.
Imagine, if you will: 1590s England is a matriarchy. Women make the decisions, women hold rank, women own all the wealth, women choose their husbands. It’s Petruchia, rather than Petruchio, who’s come to husband it wealthily in Padua. Men are adornments; chastely virtuous chattel under the dominance of their mothers until it is decreed they should wed the woman of others’ choosing. One such family is headed by Baptista Minola, with her preening, compliant younger son Bianco, who has three suitors, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia. The other son is the firebrand Katherine. Yes, Katherine. It’s a girl’s name. All the other swapped-gender characters have masculined or feminined their name endings, but Katherine remains Katherine. No wonder he’s upset. He must have been bullied rotten at school.
I don’t have to tell you the traditional story of the Taming of the Shrew, but in a nutshell: Lovely daughter Bianca can’t get married until dreadful daughter Katherine finds a husband. Enter Petruchio, who loves a challenge; woos her, marries her, then tames her by keeping her hungry, psyching her out, and even beating her into submission. At the end, there’s a magical transformation and she becomes the perfect wife. Put in those terms, it was high time for an alternative production. But it’s always been thought of as a comedy, because Katherine normally gives as good as she gets, and it becomes a true battle of the sexes.
And that’s where this laudable production slightly falls down. Whilst Petruchia is as alpha female as they get, Katherine himself isn’t really that awful. Yes, he has a temper, and eats like a pig; but apart from that, his general stage presence is surprisingly quiet – demure, almost. In traditional productions, the battles between Petruchio and Katherine are almost 50-50, maybe 60-40 on his side. But in this production, Petruchia wins 80-20, and rather than laugh at Katherine’s attempts to get her own back, we’re dismayed with horror at the sheer domestic abuse landed on the poor chap. Their relationship seems to have made both abuser and victim unhinged, and reminds us that women can abuse men just as easily as men abuse women. When Katherine delivers his final speech about the homely role of men, you sense this is not because his character has been transformed into a duteous, wifely fellow, but because he fears abuse and/or starvation if he doesn’t say it. It’s a shame that this Katherine isn’t feistier, as it might have been a bolder examination of what happens when you swap the traditional gender roles. As it stands, the quieter male Katherine rather lets the production off the hook as it ignores what it could have explored if it had gone a bit further.
That’s to take nothing away from the grandeur and humour of the production, especially in the first act. The traditional male roles played as redoubtable females are funny, telling, and beautifully performed; and provide a real eye-opener to the imbalance of the sexes, at least as far as this story conveys it. The second act loses some steam; I didn’t enjoy the totally irrelevant song and dance immediately after the interval, performed by characters whom we don’t recognise; and the subsequent scene between Grumio and Curtis goes on excessively long without really achieving much in the way of plot or character development. By then, the buzz of invention that had carried us into the interval had dissipated and for me the production never quite regained it.
I also found myself (unnecessarily, probably) irked by the fact that they didn’t swap the genders 100%. Why was Petruchia’s servant Grumio still a man? Why wasn’t she Grumia? The opening second act dance routine had men providing the singing with a decorative girl doing the dancing – shouldn’t the genders have been reversed? And why were the servants, who brought furniture props on and off stage, effeminate men rather than strong and able women? For a cheap laugh, I fear. A matriarchal society would surely give those important household jobs that required heavy lifting to reliable women of a lower class.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stately set serves its purpose, with plenty of doors to provide those occasional Feydeau Farce moments. Hannah Clark’s costumes are sumptuous, where sumptuous is required, and alarming where alarming is required. Most impressive were Ruth Chan’s compositions, superbly played by the six musicians perched above the stage, which varied from madrigal to West End showtune, and everything in between. I’m sure one of the group numbers was Italy’s entry to the 1592 Eurovision Song Contest.
Claire Price dominates the stage with her tyrannical and, frankly, terrifying performance as Petruchia. Unconventional, go-getting and heartier than Captain Birdseye, her characterisation also reminded me of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flash-heart on amphetamines. I think it was the hairstyle that did it. She gives a superb portrayal of someone who’s just allowed himself unfettered access to do whatever he wants, in order to get what he wants, no matter the consequences. Scary, but brilliant. Joseph Arkley’s Katherine never has a chance against her. More petulant than petrifying, it’s a strangely introverted performance; sour faced, but not really a shrew. This is perhaps most visible in the scene where he waits for Petruchia to turn up for their wedding – sulky, and a bit put out; but not angry. Even when he throws the flowers away it’s in despair rather than fury.
Amanda Harris’ Baptista is a grande dame, well used to opulence and having the final say, and she runs her household with beneficent, but stern, matronage. James Cooney’s Bianco is an eye-fluttering, hair-wafting fetching young cove; Mr Cooney very cleverly reflects the traditional behaviours of a Shakespearean younger woman in his movement and his stance and it’s a highly convincing performance. There’s great fun between Emily Johnstone’s super-keen Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, her servant who acts as the lady, with all the pomp and circumstance she can muster. Amy Trigg brings out all the humour of her go-between role as Biondella, charmingly insolent with Baptista, yet trying to be a good servant; and Melody Brown gives a very strong showing as the domineering Vincentia.
But once again it is Sophie Stanton who steals the show with her brilliantly comic performance as Gremia. It’s an old cliché I know, but Ms Stanton really could make you laugh your head off reading the telephone directory. The comic timing when she’s pleading her case for Bianco’s hand; the way she introduces Cambio “from Rheims”, “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” – it’s just naturally inventive and truly a class act. She amazes you with the physicality of her ability to glide like a hovercraft, and the running gag with the sword and the scabbard is just brilliant. She’s quickly becoming one of my most favourite stage performers of all time.
In the final analysis, this production boils down to an exercise to see what a familiar situation looks like when the sexes are reversed; and from that point of view it’s successful, although I think it could have gone even further. At three hours, it’s just as well they’ve dropped the whole Christopher Sly framework story! It’s playing in repertoire in Stratford until August, but then tours alongside As You Like It and Measure for Measure in Salford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham. Newcastle and Blackpool. Very enjoyable, and worth seeing to draw your own conclusions about this unusual battle of the sexes.
Production photos by Ikin Yum