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‘The Taming of the Shrew’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare Barbican Centre , Barbican Saturday November 30 2019 - Saturday January 18 2020
2 out of 5 stars
The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, 2019
© Ikin Yum

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

This gender-swapped ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ only exacerbates the problems at the heart of Shakespeare’s wife-beating comedy

Theoretically, flipping the genders in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ sounds like a solid way of dealing with the main problem with Shakespeare’s play, namely that it’s a comedy about a man, Petruchio, who beats and gaslights his wife, Katherine, into submission.

But, er, does it?

Justin Audibert’s RSC production seems to be set in a sort of parallel late Elizabethan age, a matriarchal society in which tough-talking women rule while men are long-haired, effeminate and subservient.

The thing is, the world wasn’t and isn’t like that – and the fact that the play is technically now about a woman called Petruchia mistreating a man called, um, Katherine (hey, ‘Kiss me, Karl’ doesn’t have the same ring) doesn’t make it feel any less like a play about men abusing women, because the social order it’s depicting simply doesn’t exist.

It might have worked if it served as satirical comment on the patriarchy. But by and large Audibert’s ‘Shrew’ is presented as a big, uncomplicated comedy in which all the icky stuff is cheerily deemed to be solved by the casting.

Here Joseph Arkley’s allegedly ferocious Kate is rapidly cowed – physically and psychologically – by Claire Price’s diminutive Petruchia, has a horrible time for ages then capitulates at the very end and becomes her pal (it all feels pretty sexless). It sounds like there should be some grand feminist point buried in all this. But I really don’t think there is, and the nastiness at the play’s heart goes fatally unscrutinised.

Which is all unfortunate because there is enjoyable stuff here. Price is hugely watchable, with a pleasingly dotty Queenie-from-‘Blackadder’ sort of vibe, and doesn’t seem particularly malicious in her abuse. But that hardly makes it better: if the whole thing’s a big joke, Katherine isn’t in on it.

Elsewhere, the relationship between Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and James Cooney’s Bianco is a lot more fun: his preening self-regard and outrageous flirting inject a playfulness into a character that can often come across as rather square. There are nice costumes from Hannah Clark. And Sophie Stanton’s comically smooth gliding motion while she drifts around as obnoxious suitor Gremia attracts spontaneous rounds of applause. Rightly so (respect to movement director Lucy Cullingford).

But ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is ultimately Petruchio/a and Kate. Great productions confront the problems at the heart of the play. This one slaps on a dress and hopes we won’t ask too many questions.

Details

Venue name: Barbican Centre
Venue website: www.barbican.org.uk
Venue phone: 020-76388891
Address: Beech Street
Barbican
London
EC2Y 8AE
Transport: Tube: Barbican; Rail/Tube: Moorgate
Price: £10-£59.50. Runs 3hr

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