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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Taming Of The Shrew
RSC at Barbican Theatre  Winter 2019-2020

Forty years ago there was an American TV sitcom called All That Glitters whose premise was gender role reversal. In its world househusbands stayed home and watched soap operas while their wives ran businesses and sexually harassed their male secretaries.

It lasted only a few weeks, having used up its one joke midway through the first episode.

Now director Justin Audibert pushes Shakespeare through a similar filter. In a woman-dominated world a troublesome young man inexplicably named Katherine is tamed by a swaggering adventuress named Petruchia.

The production runs over three hours, and it uses up its one joke within the first half-hour.

Do the extensive gender-switches add to the play's comedy? Not much. Do they illuminate or enrich Shakespeare's vision? No.

Do they require extensive rewriting of the text and make mincemeat of plot and characterisations? Yes. Do they offer us a new perspective on our own preconceptions about gender roles? Perhaps.

Above all, does this version work as an evening's entertainment? Not especially.

Granted, Shakespeare's play as written poses challenges to modern directors, actors and audiences. On the surface Katherine is tamed and broken in spirit, losing the feisty energy that made her an attractive character. But many productions find one way or another around that difficulty, usually through building on the lines that suggest irony or a special bond between Kate and Petruchio.

A male Katherine being tamed and broken in spirit by a female Petruchio does not solve any of the play's problems and creates new ones, largely through confusing the characterisations and getting in the way of some of the play's comedy.

Claire Price has obvious fun bringing a lot of swaggering energy to Petruchia. But one can't help suspecting it would be exactly the same energy she would give to Katherine in a more conventional production, and with much the same characterisation.

Joseph Arkley strives mightily to make some coherent sense out of a boy named Kate, but finally gives up and just reads the lines.

Much of the incidental humour comes from wholly invented filigree provided by bits of business among usually-hardly-noticed secondary and tertiary characters.

Laura Elsworthy shows the servant-disguised-as-her-boss Trania really getting into the spirit of the impersonation, while Sophie Stanton as the aged suitor Gremia generates laughs through the gimmick of taking rapid baby steps under a floor-length gown so she seems to be rolling on wheels (a trick stolen from Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night, who stole it from Gower Champion's choreography for Hello Dolly, who stole it from the Bolshoi Ballet).

And, zipping about in her wheelchair, Amy Trigg turns the very small role of Biondella into a Puck- or Ariel-like spirit directing traffic and keeping things moving. On the other hand, James Cooney has been directed to flounce around as a very effeminate Bianco for easy laughs that violate the whole gender-reversal premise.

Yes, watching the 'taming' process being done to a man might lead us to look at Shakespeare's gender psychology in a fresh way, and the sight of all those women onstage might make us aware of how very few females there are in the original text.

But that is far too little to justify a production that is too heavy-handed in its politics and simply not funny enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Taming Of The Shrew  - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2019

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