‘Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth, Unapt to toil and trouble in the world, But that our soft conditions and our hearts Should well agree with our external parts?’ Katherina, Act 5 Scene 1
On a stage which, we have been promised, will show the world upside down, a group of women glide into formation. With imperious expressions, they assume their roles to a background of courtly music performed from above. The rather ceremonious exposition descends into a discussion with the head of household over how best to arrange the marriages and dowries of her two sons.
Enter Kate. Joseph Arkley strolls onto the stage brandishing a hard stare and a chicken drumstick. Rebukes fly, anger erupts, and a piece of spittle-soaked gristle hits an audience member in the front row. From our vantage point in the upper circle, far above the premium seats and well out of the firing range, the rest of us cackle in delighted disgust.
Just as the audience member in question wipes the side of his nose to leave an uneasy grin, the more scripted exchanges to follow produce a similar effect. The RSC’s production of Shakespeare’s ever-controversial play allows moments of utter hilarity to leave the audience feeling increasingly uncomfortable as the echo of laughter dies away. Kate, rewritten as a male character, is objectified, humiliated and abused by the matriarchal society which dictates his succumbing to blind obedience. Along the faces of the upper circle, smiles falter as we each mentally adjust the gender of power. So the production continues, as a constant effort to distinguish what, we feel, we are allowed to laugh at. The fine line between the comic and grotesque culminates in a double denouement, leaving us in no doubt that in this play, only half the world are winners.
Reluctance among actors to join the cast of The Taming of the Shrew has not merely sprung up in recent years. In the RSC’s podcast, Much Ado About Shakespeare, Claire Allfree explores to what extent a rewrite could make the play more palatable yet challenging to a modern audience. Here, the reversal of characters’ genders comes across as utterly sincere and at times chillingly thought-provoking thanks to a highly competent cast; Claire Price is particularly memorable in her portrayal of the giddy but calculating Petruchia. While directors’ decisions to update seminal classics for modern audiences occasionally fall flat, Justin Audibert’s rendition is tactful and explores the challenge of offering political insight within an evidently entertaining piece of drama.
The choice to rewrite Shakespeare’s play rather than simply cross-cast is bold. Had Claire Price been playing Shakespeare’s male Petruchio, the casting may have aided a caricature of typically masculine mannerisms and introduced humour through incongruity, as Sarah Hemming writes of The Globe’s 2003 production. Instead, the exchange of characters’ genders means that social assumptions become confused, and the adjustment we make to imagine how much less we’d be laughing if the comedy played on a female Kate, as originally intended, is challenging in itself. The production therefore succeeds in degendering the abuse of power; outrage comes not through the lens of members of one gender abusing another, but from the dehumanising nature of this abuse.
The production lives up to the humour of Shakespeare’s comedies without the socio-political message becoming too heavy-handed. Interactions between characters are layered both with comedy and a more thought-provoking message for those who wish to imagine, for an instant, the effect this would have if the genders of characters were once again reversed and performed as written. Recent literary challenges to power and gender have been represented as dystopian (or utopian) fiction; Naomi Alderman’s The Power played on a similar reversal of the status quo. Justin Audibert has found the same capacity in 16th century drama. If Molière’s theory of the effectiveness of comedy to expose our flaws rings true, the Shakespearian stage seems the perfect place to challenge a modern audience.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Taming of the Shrew will be broadcast live to cinemas on 5th June 2019. The production is also going on tour and will be showing at various venues across England from 25th September 2019 to 4th April 2020 - book tickets here.