REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC

Claire Price and Joseph Arkley as Petruchia and Katherine. Photo: Ikin Yum/RSC

Steve Sutherland reviews The Taming of the Shrew, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 31st August

“Tis the mind that makes the body rich…”

Uh, oh… Here we go again. The headline news from the RSC’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew is that the genders have been universally switched. Girls will be boys and boys will be girls as The Kinks’ Ray Davies once poignantly put it in Lola. It’s a trick we’re becoming a little overfamiliar with as directors are lately seeking to bring novelty, frisson and contemporary relevance — #MeToo! — to classic texts grown themselves a mite hidebound and overfamiliar.

But to mess with The Shrew — the Shakespeare play which modern audiences already find notoriously uncomfortable — that takes some mighty big cajones, or breasts or what have you.

A quick reminder: The Taming Of The Shrew is about a bloke who marries a girl against her will and then, through a process of mental cruelty, tortures her into submission — a scenario which understandably serves as unforgivable entertainment in this day and age.

Basically, we are cordially invited to choose where our brutalised sympathies lie from the following menu:

The historians who claim that we are experiencing time travel back to a bygone age and to impose our modern sensibilities upon The Shrew is unfair and unwarranted.

The dramatists who claim that what we are witnessing is purely a farce, not to be taken seriously on any level, sociological or otherwise.

The apologists who maintain that Shakespeare, being the genius he is, was laying out the play’s brutal masculine bias before us as a deliberate mirror, so to speak, to prick our consciences, change our minds and mend our ways.

The furious who insist that the Bard was a sexist pig.

And the ones we’ll call the David Lynchians who aver that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with anything so mundane as any of the above; any true work of art will not adhere to any predetermined plot, or display any necessary motives because, well, life doesn’t work that way. It just is what it is, you kick it off and uh, what happens, just happens.

Historically it’s all been a bit of a mind wrench and I must admit that director Justin Audibert cross-dressing the whole thing had me ready with a neat sarky line about how I just couldn’t wait for the forthcoming transgender version starring contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

What social impact was Mr Audibert’s slant devised to deliver? In the programme notes he states: “I’m interested in what happens when you get female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa.”

Sound like a cop out? No such thing! What his sexual messing around with The Taming Of The Shrew wonderfully reveals is a heck of a funny play. Unbreeched, unbodiced and unburdened from the misogyny which social evolution has bestowed upon it, the play flourishes, quite the lark, its liberation aided and abetted, as always, by some spectacular thespian turns. Claire Price is tip-top strapping as the rat-nest coiffured Petruchia, Richard Clews in his element as the put-upon camp servant Grumio, Emily Johnstone yummy as the lust-driven Lucentia, Amanda Harris full-on regal bonkers as the matriarch Baptista, Laura Elsworthy a proper hoot as usual as the devious maid Trania, the deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith again adding new and welcome comic dimensions with her feisty serf Curtis, and, queen of all she surveys, a brilliant return to form from Sophie Stanton who wickedly upstages all and sundry with her Gremia, reprising her recent triumphant Mrs Rich with lashings of saucy innuendo and a mechanism for moving on and off stage under a bustle which simultaneously defies all known physics and draws spontaneous applause.

The lads as lasses, it must be said, fare less well than the lasses as lads. James Cooney’s Bianco has a neat line in wafting his locks but that’s about it, and Joseph Arkley plays Katherine so poker straight, we never once root for him in the battle of the sexes.

Still, this is a splendid show and no mistake. Maybe the Bard got it slightly wrong all those centuries back. Maybe tis the body that makes the mind rich after all.

Whatever, it’s amazing how much better we feel when the ladies are dishing it out to the gents.