In A Nutshell
Gender-flipped, unfettered, and far from tame, The Taming of the Shrew is an unbridled riot without having lost its provocation.
William Shakespeare’s most complex, challenging, and controversial plays gets a gender-bending makeover by company Arrows & Traps. In this callous game of disguises and lies, will these Italian ladies get the men and the riches they want? And just how far can you go to tame a shrew by killing them with kindness?
Academics and Shakespeare fans alike still can’t seem to figure out if The Taming of the Shrew is The Bard at the peak of mysogony or sarcasm. Though countless productions have played to umpteen interpretations whilst keeping the characters’ genders in their original intended state, Arrows & Traps decide to explore the text by swapping the genders around. Suddenly, it’s the women who are large and in charge in The Taming of the Shrew, supplying us with a surprising twist on the controversy the play often provokes.
The gender-flipping certainly makes The Taming of the Shrew more palatable, especially given director Ross McGreggor’s very deliberate playing the play as a high-paced farce. The “taming” of Katherine by Petruchio can be very uncomfortable as it is an abuse of patriarchy hits a little too close to domestic abuse, but giving Petruchia power over Kajetano is little more comfortable and a lot less suspect.
However, that doesn’t mean that McGreggor misses the point: far from it. This sex-changed adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew gives McGreggor and company an opportunity to still prise out a provocation. For instant, having both Katherina and Bianca as brothers rather than sisters gives rise to an opportunity to explore a coarser and more violent relationship between them. Kajetano also then very aggressively riles against what is the unfairness of the matriarchy in this production. Likewise, Pertuchia’s “taming” can be executed more spitefully as its against a male, making it less excessively criminal.
By doing this, however, you’re almost more aware of the text’s debated misogyny rather than diverted from it. By skipping the revulsion that The Taming of the Shrew might otherwise arouse, you begin to see something a bit different in this version, finding yourself unexpectedly questioning the context of Shakespeare’s most ill-humoured and disingenuous play. The patriarchy, although now in the hands of the women, is still apparent, still strong, and still incredibly unjust. In this version of The Taming of the Shrew its almost easier to pick it our and criticise it as we see it through less of a red mist.
The other notable point in the adaptation is just how free a farce McGreggor and Arrows & Traps make The Taming of the Shrew. The rulebook is thrown out (if it hadn’t already with changing of genders and names) and The Taming of the Shrew is approached with riotous abandon. Wonderfully silly ad libs and slapstick humour purveys throughout, creating what is possibly the most off-the-wall production of The Taming of the Shrew out there. As well as using the comedy to help McGreggor’s grand subversion, it also makes it relaxed and more modern affair rather than the stuffy and dense text it can be under different directions. McGreggor’s interluding of some scenes with live renditions of modern songs also gives a bit of colour and depth to the text, even if it’s unprecedent. But like everything else here, it far from mars The Taming of the Shrew and, if anything, actually lifts it.
McGreggor has by no means sacrilegiously butchered Shakespeare’s text. Indeed, you have to understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s works for what they are and mean before you can start playing about with them. The evidence of that here is in just how well and unexpectedly organic Shakeapere’s most challenging comedy comes off. This version of The Taming of the Shrew is by no means a novelty, but a smart and probing twist.
Direction & Production
Not to sound mean, but Zoe Koperski’s design feels wonderfully am dram: but then, its supposed to! The Taming of the Shrew does indeed feel like it’s being played out in the theatre of a band of rather earnest players. But thankfully, this slightly ropey but well meaning aesthetic doesn’t distract from the play. Indeed, some of the detailing on the set and props actually is actually a bit of a give-away that there’s more than amateur aspirations to the design here, especially with things like the filament bulbs hanging about the stage. None the less, Koperski’s entrances, exits, and windows actually enable the production to be playful and farcical: a design wonderful fit for purpose and executed such. Furthermore, moments of the play are indebted to Will Pinchin’s movement direction, orchestrating a lot of the slapstick and physical comedy with uproarious aplomb, and some nice choreography from Chrissy Kett for the musical moments.
The only thing that lets this play down ever so slightly is some of the pitching of the farce approach to The Taming of the Shrew. Sometimes it’s just a bit too energetic and is just that little bit too silly. Conversely, there are moments that no matter how much McGreggor tries to inject some “oomph” into The Taming of the Shrew, the text still labours. Unfortuately, that’s something that’s the text’s fault and not McGreggors, and kudos are due for making the effort to move things along with humour. However, when the pitch is right, it’s glorious. The exchanges between Grumia and Petruchia are brilliant musical hall moments, and the scene where Petruchia chides her servants is tear-inducingly funny.
It’s great to see a fringe cast so adept at comedy here in The Taming of the Shrew. Jean Apps gives a wonderfully grandiose comic turn as Señorita Gremia, but also approaches the minor characters with just as much energetic cheek. Likewise, Lucy Caplin as Grumia has a wonderfully boisterous sense of physicality and fun that gives pace and presence to their scenes.
But the stand out performances are those that actually finds the small pieces of pathos among the punchlines. Elizabeth Appleby as Petruchia brings a surprising depth to a version that tops The Taming of the Shrew with superficial silliness. Appleby brims with a determination and vigour of resolve that is almost pathological, and their performance really digs deep into McGreggor’s vision of using the gender-bending to bring out a dangerous portrait of patriarchy. But Appleby is not without a bullying lightness too when it comes to comic turns, and can be as scathing as they can be scolding.
Alexander McMorran also pries beyond the fun to find a depth of real humanity in Kajetano, despite the very openly violent portrayal. In fact, McMorran’s transformation from towering brute to docile disciple is actually quite powerful in its juxtaposition. But there’s always a shrouded sense of sarcasm and bitterness that comes through in every word and moment that McMorran plays out, especially in Kajetano’s famous final speech, galvanising McGreggor’s vision as something far from frivolous.
The Taming of the Shrew is girl power at its most riotous and satirical in this sex-skewed version. There may be ludicrous laughs in bucketfuls, but it doesn’t prevent a deeper criticism of patriarchy. After all, a truer word was never spoken in jest!
The Taming of the Shrew plays at the New Wimbledon Studio, London, SW19 1QG, until 20 June 2015. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit www.atgtickets.com.