Hilarious, brilliant and sumptuous – the RSC shows a mighty confidence to import all of Shakespeare’s genius whilst addressing the disquieting messages of this folio by employing the simple but perfect device of flipping its characters’ genders. No humour is sacrificed – in fact the mirth is enhanced. For example, the famous tussle between Catherine and Petrucio, (now Petruchia, performed gloriously by the charismatic and menacing Claire Price) in which Catherine declares, ‘If I be waspish, best beware of my sting’ to which Petruchia replies, ‘my remedy is then to pluck it out’ is all the bawdier for its new-found phallic resonance.
Yet the sick celebration of coercive control that is at the heart of this play is also left unvarnished and obvious so that we are rightly troubled – whilst the surrounding circumstances also cause us to roll in the aisles with laughter. This production’s magical balancing act is achieved thanks to deft direction, sureness of comic purpose and one of the finest ensembles of actors on any stage in the world. Lashings of wit and pure theatrical entertainment delight us whilst Shakespeare’s crisp and deliberate poetry reverberates with even more beauty, power, ridicule and, as is appropriate, alarm thanks to each and every player’s masterful enactment.
This production is diverse without a shred of tokenism – all actors amply demonstrate their hard-earned right to be RSC principals and fundamental necessity to the play’s story whilst giving the audience a masterclass in characterisation, timing and oration. This Taming succeeds on a greater level than many other productions thanks to its diversity. Never is there a sense that ‘reasonable accommodation’ means ‘reduction of standards’; rather we feel we would be bereft if any aspect of this work were stripped away. I shall be sad to see another production that does not depict the servant Biondella(o) (played to side-splitting perfection thanks to Amy Trigg’s astonishing vocal command and comic timing) as a racing herald who uses her wheelchair to create a sense of greater urgency or a staging that fails to employ a deaf native sign-language-user to heighten the absurd tension of Grumio’s (brilliantly delivered by Richard Clews) second act opening speech. The world built by director Justin Adibert is consistent and convincing – it’s now hard to imagine it done any other way and certainly not any better.
Adibert’s note-for-note timing in verbal and physical comic orchestration is nothing short of breath-taking. Lighting designer Matt Peel’s ability to ‘grade’ the tableaux we behold with a film colourist’s skill transports us from gloriously decadent Paduan palaces to the brutal and heartbreaking ‘Taming School’, to which Catherine (outstandingly performed by Joseph Arkley) is trafficked, with an adroitness of composition that is both painterly and cinematographic.
Spectacular but never distracting, Hannah Clark’s costumes deserve a retrospective at the V&A in their own right. Her designs and their fabrication by the RSC demonstrate both glory and cleverness – working on so many levels and yet entirely serving the story’s central purpose and the production’s entertainment mission. If Vivienne Westwood’s sense of quirk and craft excites you, you will be longing for an entire wardrobe conceived by Clark.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set succeeds as functional and gorgeous. Composer Ruth Chan delights us with everything form harpsichord trills, as both underscore and occasional comic punctuation, to transportive court masques that build the world and usefully frame dramatic action – and which are jolly entertaining in their own right.
Everything about this production is simultaneously voluptuous and economical. Theatre is one of the true collaborative art forms and it usually shows when one dimension must work harder than another. In this production, there is a sense of exponential artistic success born of a series of the happiest of chain-reactions to win the day and show us how the masters do it. The Royal Shakespeare Company deserves every accolade for such assiduous synergy in evidence in this Taming of the Shrew.
The acting is absolutely peerless with each player a star contributing to a wondrous theatrical constellation. Sophie Stanton as a gliding and imperious Gremia demonstrates recidivist scene-stealing but is matched by the jocular brilliance of Amanda Harris as Baptista and given a run-for-her-money by Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, whose physical gags and poetic recitation show us astounding versatility alongside Swiss-watch timing.
The fact that this production solves a persistent problem of the gender pay gap widening with age for actors – in which the meaty roles built for the most experienced players become more male post-40 whereas roles for female actors of the same experience become a rarity – shows the abundance of true acting talent resident in this country but also the tragedy for audiences if we are only offered such theatrical skill in tiny rations. Adibert’s Taming of the Shrew should be a catalyst for writing vehicles for every woman on the Barbican’s stage last night. With such a supply of world-class acting capability, this nation might just find a way forward simply by ensuring these women continue to work as actors for as long as they desire. Given the entire cast’s comic skills, we would all certainly be a happier people for it.
If you’ve devoted your life to Shakespeare and you can only see one more play before you die, go see this production. If you’ve never seen Shakespeare before and wonder what all the hype is about, go see this production. If you’re desperate for a laugh, a distraction or something compelling to discuss, go see this production.
Review by Mary Beer
In this radical take on Shakespeare’s fierce and energetic comedy of gender, Baptista Minola is seeking to marry off her two sons, the sweet-tempered Bianco and the rebellious Katherine. Cue an explosive courtship and a keenly witty portrayal of hierarchy and control.
Taking inspiration from the novel The Power by Naomi Alderman, Justin Audibert directs a revelatory The Taming of the Shrew, set in a matriarchal world, with sumptuous Elizabethan costumes.
The Taming of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Tue 5 Nov 2019—Sat 18 Jan 2020