I’m a massive Shakespeare fan, but this misogynistic comedy has always made me uncomfortable (even in the days before the MeToo movement). I hadn’t read anything about this production before going so when I opened the programme and saw ‘In a reimagined 1590, society is a Matriarchy’, I was a little excited.
There are plenty of prominent women in Shakespeare’s plays (Ophelia, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth and so on) but none of them have any personal power. This production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ sees Elizabethan gentlewomen with real power - including the power to decide when and to whom their sons are married, which is the premise of the play.
The wealthy and domineering matriarch Baptista Minola (Amanda Harris) has a dilemma. Her gentle and handsome younger son, Bianco (James Cooney) has many suiters offering status and dowry but protocol dictates the younger son cannot marry before the elder. The problem Baptista has is her elder son, Katherine (Joseph Arkley) knows his own mind and speaks it - he’s a shrew, though his performance not quite as fiery as I expected. Such a man isn’t an attractive proposition for most gentlewomen with causes frustration for his mother and brother.
Enter the spectacular Petruchia (Claire Price), a gentlewoman seeking a rich husband and not adverse to a challenge. She agrees to woo Katherine and open the way for Bianco’s numerous suiters. After meeting him she takes him as her husband the they away back to her country house where she proceeds to tame (or break!) him through sensory deprivation and exhaustion. This all felt far more comical with a man being the object of the abuse rather than a woman and the feeling that he’s a man, surely, he can fight back?
While the focus of the production is the swaggering Petrucia’s plan to ‘tame’ Katherine there is a far more amusing subplot around the numerous suiters for Bianco. The fortune-hunting Hortensia (Amelia Donkor), the rich and more mature Gremia (Sophie Stanton) and the lovely, lively and ever so dippy gentlewoman Lucentia (Emily Johnstone). Lucentia is new to town and upon seeing Bianco falls immediately in love but as is so often the case in a Shakespeare comedy subterfuge and deception are required so all parties can manoeuvre to where they desire to be.
Apart from the highly energetic and amusing Petruchia, the other highlight of this powerful female cast was Trania (Laura Elseworthy), Lucentia's lady servant. Trania and Lucentia swap identities for the purpose of wooing Bianco and the results are hilarious! With shades of Blackadder, wonderful comic movement and an incredibly expressive face she was the star for me. Doing what ever her mistress instructed but living it up at the same time.
A traditional set, rich costumes and inspired music all added to this fascinating production commanded by nine powerful leading ladies who were clearly relishing these meaty roles. Despite the cast being female dominated they still managed to tick the diversity box which will hopefully in the future become less noteworthy and more the norm.
My only criticism is perhaps by not straying far from the text they didn’t take the ‘reimagining’ far enough. There is still reference to chattels and supremacy, Petruchia brutalises her new husband until his spirit is broken and he conforms to the society’s idea of an ideal man. Some of the men in the cast were also a little OTT with the effeminate gestures, laugh worthy for sure but at the expense of the original female characters they were portraying.
All in, an energetic, engaging and thought-provoking RSC production. Well worth seeing.
The Taming of the Shrew plays at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal until 7 March 2020 as part of a three show RSC season including Measure for Measure and As You Like It.