Review – The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th March 2019

The Taming of the ShrewIf 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.

The CompanyWhen 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.

Bianco, Baptista and KatherineImagine, 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.

Katherine and PetruchiaI 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.

PetruchiaAnd 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. KatherineWhen 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.

BaptistaThat’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.

GrumioI 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.

HortensiaStephen 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.

Katherine - weddingClaire 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.

BiondellaAmanda 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.

GremiaBut 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.

Vincentia and KatherineIn 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

Review – As You Like It, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21st February 2019

As You Like ItThe prospect of seeing another production of As You Like It always fills me with excitement because it’s one of Shakespeare’s true crowd-pleasers. The cheeky, jokey relationship between Rosalind and Celia; the challenge of how to characterise the melancholy Jaques; the knowing sniggering of Orlando chatting up Ganymede when we all know it’s Rosalind; the rustic tomfoolery of Touchstone, Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. Then there are also those little heart-warming moments, like Adam pledging allegiance to Orlando, and Orlando’s subsequent care for Adam when his life is almost at an end; and Celia facing up to her vicious father and refusing to leave Rosalind’s side. There’s a lot of kind friendship going on here.

Celia and RosalindI confess; I struggled to identify director Kimberley Sykes’ vision for this production. My only clue came from an article in the programme about how plays such as these would have been very much performed to and for the audience in Shakespeare’s time. As a result, there’s quite a bit of fourth-wall breaking. It’s as though they’ve taken Rosalind’s final speech, an epilogue delivered directly to the audience, and worked backward from there.

Orlando wrestlingTo be fair, some of this works extremely well. Whilst Orlando and “Ganymede” are wooing each other and pretending to get married, Celia joins us at the edge of the stage and casts tutting glances at individual audience members as if to share the thought, jeez how much longer is this going on? She grabs a programme off someone and tries to identify who’s on stage – and then she finds a funny photo in the programme and cackles with inappropriate laughter whilst pointing at it and others, just like an ill-behaved audience member might. Personally, I found that “irreverent audience member-act” hilarious. In another scene, Touchstone’s camera lens disintegrated so he gave it to an audience member to hold. On yet another occasion, Rosalind and Celia tried to outstare a gentleman in the front row. All these little incidents really helped to build a relationship between cast and crowd. Less so the moment shortly before the interval when Orlando got four people out of the audience to hold up pieces of paper that, when put together, read “Rosalind”. Rarely has so much audience disruption been caused for so little dramatic or comic gain.

Duke FrederickOther effects bludgeon us into some form of reaction. Touchstone is dressed throughout in homage to Scottish/American magician/comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Don’t ask me why. The arrival by the banished characters at the Forest of Arden is marked by the stage lights glowing bright, removal of the backdrop so we can see all the backstage gubbins, members of the cast walking round chatting willy-nilly, and a disembodied voice requiring Miss Stanton to appear on stage to perform her All The World’s a Stage routine (even though we hadn’t got that far into the play yet). Again, don’t ask me why. Many productions do away with the appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage, in the final scene, because it heavily detracts from any sense of realism. Not so with this production, where the stage is dominated by the biggest Hymen (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re ever likely to see. Out of all proportion, it’s grotesque and ungainly and looks like an accident in a papier-mâché factory.

Forest of ArdenThis is a very strange evening at the theatre. On the one hand, you have some superb performances and a few laugh out loud moments that really take your breath away. On the other hand, the production has a strange energy-sapping effect, and by the time Rosalind/Ganymede has engineered the four-way marriage celebrations, you really just want to get out for some fresh air. Although the production aims to bring the audience and play closer together, it’s only Rosalind, Orlando and Celia who sustain your interest. The plights and intrigues of the other characters can go hang for all you care. Mrs Chrisparkle wore her bored look for much of the evening – OK I realise, that might have been because of me, but I sense (and hope) it was the Arden brigade.

JaquesOn a lighter note, the love triangle of Touchstone, Audrey and William is enhanced by having Tom Dawze’s William act as a sign-language interpreter between the other two characters; Charlotte Arrowsmith delivers all Audrey’s lines by sign language and this excellent element of inclusivity lends an extra dimension and weight to their relationship. Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of gender-bending in productions of the classics, and this production features female portrayals of Jaques, Le Beau, Amiens and Martext, all of which help you to see the familiar characters from a different perspective.

TouchstoneAnd there’s also a female Silvius – now portrayed as Silvia. This means Phoebe is now being pestered by a lovelorn young shepherdess; fair enough. However, the appropriateness of this change all unravels at the final scene. Ganymede promises to marry Phoebe if ever he marries woman. But when it’s revealed that he is a she, Phoebe’s reaction is if sight and shape be true, why then my love adieu – in other words, “oh no, you’re a girl, I only fancy boys”. Nevertheless she’s still instantly married off to a girl! I appreciate that the words of Hymen could imply that he has no problem with equal marriage – which, of course, is great – but it’s being imposed on Phoebe and for me, it didn’t make sense and it didn’t sit comfortably.

RosalindLet’s concentrate on the good things. Lucy Phelps as Rosalind – what a tremendous performance! A perfect blend of mischief and nobility, of girlish goofiness and authoritative courtier. Whether she be sharing a joke with her friend or trying to extricate herself from very serious situations, she constantly reveals little insights about her character and she is so completely believable. Very funny, very dignified; Ms Phelps absolutely nails it.

Rosalind SubmergedSophie Khan Levy, too, is perfect as Celia; long-suffering, easily giving in to temptation, and wickedly sarcastic. I loved how she transformed herself into a rock; and how her cynical side just melted away when she encounters the dreamy Jacques de Bois. She and Ms Phelps form a terrific double-act, both comic and dramatic. David Ajao’s Orlando is a simple, good-hearted soul, exuding enthusiasm in everything he does, and a great match for Ms Phelps as neither can contain their giggly romantic interest in each other.

CeliaSophie Stanton’s Jaques is a very intelligent reading of the role, full of wistful thought and interrupted emotion; calmly and unhysterically delivered. She doesn’t recite All the World’s a Stage like some powerful, previously well thought-out party piece, but as though the idea is coming to her as she says it; a concept developing in her brain as she works her way through the journey of An Average Life. The staging of What shall he have that kill’d the deer is less successful; the combination of Ms Stanton’s eerie vocal delivery and Graeme Brookes’ First Lord’s cervine scampering around the stage makes the audience uncertain whether to laugh or be concerned for their mental wellbeing.

OrlandoAntony Byrne excels at the dual roles of the two Dukes, one nice, one nasty; and I enjoyed the way the one became the other at that otherwise strange border crossing into the Forest of Arden. Sandy Grierson’s eccentric and perceptive Touchstone is a lot to take on board, and treads a fine line between annoyingly comic and comically annoying – which is perfectly reasonable for that character. Richard Clews’ Adam is a noble and moving performance – with a delightful singing voice too, and there’s a nicely bumbling characterisation of Corin by Patrick Brennan. Emily Johnstone’s Madame Le Beau steals every scene in the first act as she teeters into the sinking grass with her stilettos and speaks her servilities with wonderful emptiness.

Rosalind and SilviaThere’s no doubt that the fantastic cast carry this rather underwhelming production. It could do with a few more cuts and a little tightening up; at just over three hours including the interval it is a little trying at times. However, it’s worth paying the ticket price to see Lucy Phelps alone! In repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31st August and then across the country between September and April 2020.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis