INTERVIEW: Joseph Arkley on playing Kate in the RSC’s Taming of the Shrew

Joseph Arkley pictured at the RSC’s Swan Theatre; and, inset, as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Mark Williamson R18/3/19/6076

Joseph Arkley has ditched the brooding bad guys to play the role of Kate in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s blistering production of The Taming Of The Shrew. Here he talks to Gill Sutherland about the gender-switched role and his career.

First up, Joseph, we all need to get our heads around how the genders are working in this production. Explain please! It serves the play that Shakespeare wrote — but Kate happens to be a man played by a man, so there’s no cross-dressing or anything. And Petruchia is a woman played by a woman. So that’s simply the switch we are making. We live in a matriarchal society in Elizabethan England.

It’s a play about sexual politics with some troubling bits… How is framing the play in a matriarchy solving the issues in the play? I don’t think we attempt to solve anything. The main thing is it’s trying to shed light on the gender politics of the play through a different lens. So the reason for setting it in a fictionalised Elizabethan period as opposed to setting it modern day is we don’t want to be too proscriptive, you don’t want to preach at the audience in a righteous manner. Traditionally in the play you have a male figure doing certain things to a woman. So if we switch that do we still feel the same way? How do we feel about Kate at the end accepting Petruchio? Does it take us in a different direction? We’re really not trying to resolve anything — people can have problems with it and that’s absolutely fine. We’ve not tried to fix Shakespeare’s play at all.

The gender-flipping of Shakespeare’s roles is sometimes viewed negatively. For example, the Daily Mail had the headline ‘Kiss Me Kevin’ about this production and the insinuation that it’s ‘PC hogwash’. Do you have any trepidation about what you are doing? No, none, zero. The problem with the Daily Mail is that they will have a response before they see anything — they will be infuriated whatever. It says more about them that they’ve called it ‘Kiss Me Kevin’.

The Daily Mail are probably an extreme example. But I’m sure some of the RSC audience also relish traditional productions — there’s mutterings and moanings! I think that’s absolutely fine for people to be irritated by it. But from my perspective as an actor and an audience member, particularly with Shakespeare, if you just keep repeating the same thing it just becomes a museum piece. If there is no tension between performers and audience, what’s the point in doing it? Whether you hate it or enjoy it the conversation will definitely be filtering out to the bars afterwards. In the current climate it is key that talking points are raised. If we are uncomfortable with it, why are we uncomfortable? I think it will create quite a rich debate.

The play is often billed as a battle of the sexes – does the gender switch make it beyond that? I hope it goes beyond the sexes, that’s the key point. I don’t think it should just be a vehicle for talking about the gender switch. Effectively it’s still a messed up love story. I would hope that the audience will take that away. I hop people will be galvanised by it.

Going back to you being offered the part — did you know you were auditioning for the role of Kate? It was a bolt out of the blue. I was not expecting to play this role in my life! I think for a lot of actors with Shakespeare, you think at some point I would love to play such-and-such role… when I got offered Kate I had no reference points in my head. That’s been massively liberating for me as a male performer. It’s great that women are playing these bigger traditionally male roles, but people perhaps overlook that not all male actors want to play the aggressors all the time — to be pushed to a more emotionally vulnerable place is a brilliant thing for me.

How did the audition process work? Director Justin Audibert and I had worked together before. We met when I was a young actor and he was an assistant director here at the RSC. I worked with him then and then we did a production on Mojo together in about 2010 — we’ve been pals since then. The last time I was here was in 2014 on The White Devil.

What is the look and feel and how are you dressed? It’s Elizabethan and the men have been infantilised by the women. We are groomed and presented as virgins. A woman can hold a gaze, but as a man you must drop your eyes — it’s about finding those small details that women are used to experiencing. As a man it’s getting used to being slightly on edge in the presence of these tough women.

Moving on, tell us about your route into acting. I studied politics at Nottingham University. In my first year two women across the corridor from me at our student accommodation said they were going to this thing for student theatre, and I was busy trying to finish an essay, and I thought no that’s not for me — then I thought OK I’ll give it a go, and went for an audition, and was cast in Habeas Corpus. It was a crossroads point for me, and I ended up getting heavily involved — going on to play Salieri in Amadeus. In my second year I went to Edinburgh Festival and decided I’d try for drama school after university — and just got into the Conservatoire in Scotland after someone dropped out.

What about your folks, are they artsy/actors? No but they should have been. My dad was an engineer but did amateur dramatics; and when he does talk about theatre and the arts, he’s so knowledgeable he’s incredible. As I did a politics degree probably the expectation was that I would go into the civil service, but I was lucky Mum and Dad were so supportive about me becoming an actor.

Who were some of your influences? If I’m honest I got into acting in the first place because of TV comedy: I loved Alan Partridge, which is far away from what I do. I’ve mainly had moody classical roles (including a notable Richard III at Perth Theatre). For me Steve Coogan can do no wrong. Like me he’s also from Norwich, and I wanted desperately to get out of there and he came along and blew the doors off the place; and for a 14-year-old desperate to escape it was inspiring.

Yes, I have met him! I saw him at Norwich Theatre Royal to do Partridge Live and I met him afterwards – I’ve never been so starstruck. There’s a selfie that’s pride of place at my parents’ house: my brother and I with Coogan in the middle.

Last, any future plans? Hollywood? Before this I did some filming — and yes I’d love to do more. I love the discipline of it and the focus. My life is in a different place now — my wife, Matti Houghton, is also an actor and we have a two-year-old daughter. I’d love to do it all, but we do a lot of plate-spinning with childcare. I played a lot of angry young men in my days but as an actor in my late 30s I want to open up the emotional range of the parts I’m playing – which is why this role has been great.

How Shrewish are you?

Actor Joseph Arkley takes our daft quiz…

Are you a feminist? Of course.

Are you argumentative? Yes, when it comes to politics I’m a big mouth.

What was the last rant you had? With a friend, and we were talking about Jeremy Corbyn — I don’t think I should go any further!

What makes you mad? Lack of care and generosity in our current political discourse — the aggression in the current climate makes me mad, which doesn’t help!

Have you got a wicked tongue? Yep. I think my most recent tongue-lashing subject was David Davis [the Tory MP] after listening to him on the Today programme. I wanted to throw the radio against the wall. I plugged into Kate in a big way.

Kate is misunderstood — have you ever felt you have been? I have huge amounts of empathy for Kate. Her anger comes out of a vulnerable place and a craving to be loved and we can all identify with that.