Taming of the Shrew at The Barbican: An imposing, powerful performance that challenges our core assumptions
One of the pitfalls of the traditional telling of The Taming of the Shrew has always been Katherine’s apparent submission. This bold woman becomes overpowered and beaten into becoming a lifeless puppet, often portrayed to be knelt at the feet of Petruchio (or Petrochia in this production) in her final speech, declaring the wives should ‘place your hand under your husband’s foot’. It is also frustrating for the fact that it is essentially an unjustly abrupt end to her character arc. However, this RSC production of a timeless, and one of the more problematic works of the bard, turns the traditional play on its head by reversing gender roles and replacing the patriarchy with a matriarchy. This production isn’t intended to be highly lauded as a feminist assertion on Shakespearean theatre; it is instead an opportunity for a 21st century audience to investigate how meanings can change by exploring the function of gender on language, stage presence and how we as the audience may be more or less perceptive of something under the influence of traditional gender roles. Director, Justin Audibert, was inspired by the novel The Power by Naomi Alderman, in which women become the dominant sex; this is therefore not a challenge to The Bard of Avon, but a fantasy that challenges the roles of men and women both on stage and in society.
The set itself is designed to look like a courtyard; an intimate space that juxtaposes the high ceilings of the very modern Barbican theatre. This brings a great deal of authenticity where one can begin to imagine what it really would be like to watch this as an Elizabethan audience.
The play opens with a bang; a synchronised court dance to lively music of the harpsichord, guitar and recorder. Composer Ruth Chan explains in the programme, ‘the starting point for my musical score came from Justin Audibert’s direction – rock Renaissance…Renaissance costume with early 90s popular music’. For those of us who were first acquainted with the shrew in a GCSE English Lit classroom, this 90s influence will have you reminiscing over the brilliant film adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You. What is interesting about this court dance is that women take the lead. Sensuality has always been portrayed and approved of when women oblige men, or act dangerously by making eye-contact (highly outrageous in Elizabethan society) instead of feigning a child-like innocence. Petruchio (Claire Price) and Lucentia (Emily Johnstone), for instance, set out to win over their respective partners through deceit and dominance – women who determine the destinies of men- and although it is not the sense of equality to strive for, it is certainly interesting to see the narrative unfold purely through the consequences of women’s actions.
Hannah Clarke’s costume department ensures that the most noticeable thing on stage is the sheer imposition of these elaborate Elizabethan dresses. Whenever they dance or twirl, the air very slightly lifts and inflates their bell-shaped gowns to take up an enormous amount of space that the men in breeches have no chance occupying. Baptista (Amanda Harris) has perhaps the most impressive costume of all, with twinkling crystal studs embroidered into her dress; she is fierce matriarch who draws us in with her sheer presence, a gravitational pull that comes from her status and glorious dress.
Katherine (Joseph Arkley) and Bianca (James Cooney) – now called Bianco- are both played by men. We get the sense that their sense of masculinity has been muted for the purpose of their objectification. Bianco is unbelievably camp, tossing his long hair with attitude, strutting off the stage in a tantrum and sheltering behind his mother. Katherine is boisterous and crude, eating a morsel of bread dropped on the floor, to the audible disgust of the audience. As the story goes, Baptista has lost almost all hope of marrying off Katherin, but he must be married before his younger brother, and more appealing bridegroom, Bianco.
Claire Price’s stellar performance as Petruchia breaks every physical code of conduct for a woman, and as a woman on stage. Her arms hang loosely by her sides, her feet are set apart and firmly rooted to the ground and the pace at which she moves suggests she makes no apology for her imposition. In some ways, she has revived the traditional role of Katherine at the same time.
This is a play that has put a lot of effort into its subtleties, from costume to staging to music. One scene that sticks out is the moment Katherine thinks he has been jilted. Although the jilted man in not uncommon, to see Katherine in the frills and ruffles of wedding attire, he suddenly looks very vulnerable. Despite these subtleties, the unscripted comedy can get tiresome and repetitive. But since it’s flaws are so minimal, it is certainly one to watch for its relevancy and powerful experience.
Taming of the Shrew will be playing at The Barbican until the 18th January 2020
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC