The Taming of the Shrew (Barbican Theatre)

Posted: November 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Justin Audibert


Some plays struggle to stand the test of time. In the not so distant past, The Taming of the Shrew could be seen almost constantly, almost everywhere, but now it has been eclipsed by the much tamer Much Ado About Nothing as the Shakespearean romcom of choice. …Shrew may now be better known as the play within a musical in Kiss Me Kate, which distances itself from what modern audiences could regard as the Bard’s most poisonous notions.

The problem is that misogyny is drilled deep into the heart of the tale of how the vigorously macho Petruchio takes the ill-tempered, shrewish Katherina and forcefully tames her into becoming his dutiful and obedient wife. In the age of feminism, it is hard to make the play either palatable or funny, but director Justin Audibert comes up with a possible solution – gender reversal. Presumably, it is seen as okay for a wife to tether and starve her husband into submission, but not the other way round.

In this version, we see a slightly angry wimp, Katherine (Joseph Arkley) being brought to heel by Petruchia (Claire Price), a butch dominatrix. Saddled with a name like “Kate”, perhaps a man has the right to be angry and, cursed by a dreadful, untameable hairstyle, perhaps a lady can be forgiven for needing someone to take it out on. Yes, of course, one of the  main points of this production is to show up gender stereotyping for the nonsense that it is, but Audibert seems to forget that the comedy in Shakespeare’s original was actually  founded on gender stereotyping. By jettisoning it and not replacing it with something that makes sense, the production robs key scenes, such as the marriage proposal and the wedding night, of all their humour.

Audibert’s handsomely mounted production has an unconventional approach, but a very conventional look. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ elegant single set and Hannah Clark’s lavish period costumes belong to 16/17th Century Italy and music from a seven-piece band adds an air of jollity. Happily, the sub-plots and the secondary characters, also gender reversed, work much better than the central story.

The original version has Kate’s sweet natured younger sister, Bianca fending off multiple suitors. Here, his brother, James Cooney’s effeminate fop, Bianco is, for reasons that are not obvious, their target. Leading the pack is Lucentia (Emily Johnstone), aided by her servants, the over-`zealous Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and the over-harassed Blondella (Amy Trigg). They make the chase fun, even though some of the visual comedy occasionally feels over-played.

Most inspired among the re-gendering is the transition of a bunch of dull, anxious male elders into a gathering of clucking hens, who display a variety of walks that are silly enough to make John Cleese feel proud. Amanda Harris’s Baptista, Sophie Stanton’s Gremia and Melody Brown’s Vincentia are all so delightful that we wonder why Shakespeare himself did not create the characters in this way.

Audibert’s reinvention is a curate’s egg, good only in parts. It sets out to examine and redefine gender roles, but too much of it ends up feeling gimmicky rather than revelatory. The question as to whether this play can ever be staged effectively in the 21st Century remains largely unanswered.

Performance date: 7 November 2019

Photo: Ikin Yum

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

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