The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal Plymouth
Running Time – 2 hours 55 minutes – 1 interval
Theatre Royal Plymouth Box Office – 01752 267222
REVIEW – 19 February 2020
“I am ashamed that men are so simple”, so says Katherine, turning to the audience with a knowing look! Yes, but, of course, the original line uses ‘women’ rather than ‘men’; so the theme behind this gender-swapped production of another of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays is summed up – to an extent.
Readers of my reviews will know I am not over-enamoured with directors taking plays – not just Shakespeare’s – and fiddling around with them, in an attempt to make a point. It rarely works in my experience. However, in this case, director, Justin Audibert, has merely presented the original play from a completely different angle. The conquest of Petruchio over Katherine; by means of a combination of bullying, humiliation and subjugation is there regardless of the gender of the protagonists. A Matriarchal rather than a Patriarchal society is still peppered with characters of sexual inadequacy and self-importance. It is no less sexist or even unnerving. The play’s the thing. That is what it is. A play. A fiction. But in this guise it is able to hold a mirror up to the past and the present and let us consider how things have, or have not, developed over the centuries.
Thus, what we are presented with is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ – but the shrew happens to be male. The result is clever, thoughtful, sumptuous, hilarious and invigorating. This is Shakespeare presented in an adult fashion; thought through by the production team and followed through on every level; it is not the puerile dabbling about that some directors see as being ‘relevant’ and ‘of the moment’ – God help us!
From the opening chords of Ruth Chan’s wonderful music – using samples of music from a female Renaissance composer – and the gorgeous costumes of Hannah Clark; power dressing taken seriously – we know we are in for a great ride.
Within an Elizabethan wood-panelled set, we are treated to a highly eloquent production where, it has to be said, the actors appear to be having a field day. With wild wig and thigh-slapping swagger, Claire Price is a powerhouse of feistiness – never to be messed with; out to conquer the renegade Katherine (one of the few unchanged character names, somewhat unsatisfactorily) whose degradation is rather movingly brought to life by Joseph Arkley. As the wonderfully fruity matriarch Baptista, Amanda Harris dominates with sons with her voice whilst fending off the overtures of Amelia Donkor (Hortensia) and Sophie Stanton (Gremia) – the latter of which, in particular, is a masterpiece in comedy work, from the sword struggling to the facial contortions, all is topped by the actress apparently moving around on wheels under her huge skirts – sublime.
James Cooney is a wonderfully prissy and vain Bianco; hair-tossing has rarely been so funny. More delights come from Emily Johnstone as Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy as Trania who wrings every ounce out of the role. Amy Trigg is a whirlwind as Biondella, propelling herself at high speed around the stage in a wheelchair and speaking some of her lines (as required) at the same pace. Richard Clews (one of the non-gender swapped roles) is spot on as the put upon, but trusted servant to Petruchia, Grumio. I could go on. It is a fine cast – and it the play is well cast.
Despite a dip in pace and engagement at the start of the second half, it is fleeting and the pace throughout is wonderful.
A fluid, fascinating and clever production of a play which does what it was intended to do, entertain in abundance.
The Royal Shakespeare Company have presented three very different productions in this tour to Theatre Royal Plymouth and, in doing so, have demonstrated how refreshing, how exciting and how absorbing Shakespeare plays can be when they are performed with clarity, with clear speech and with production teams with visions which they fully engage with. It has been a joy and a privilege to witness them.
BAPTISTA – AMANDA HARRIS
KATHERINE – JOSEPH ARKLEY
BIANCO – JAMES COONEY
PETRUCHIA – CLAIRE PRICE
HORTENSIA – AMELIA DONKOR
GREMIA – SOPHIE STANTON
LUCENTIA – EMILY JOHNSTONE
TRANIA – LAURA ELSWORTHY
BIONDELLA – AMY TRIGG
VICENTIA – MELODY BROWN
GRUMIO – RICHARD CLEWS
CURTIS – CHARLOTTE ARROWSMITH
SERVANTS – AARON THIARA, ALEXANDER MUSHORE
THE PEDANT – HANNAH AZUONYE
WIDOWER – LEO WAN
TAILOR – MICHAEL PATRICK
HABERDASHER – ALEX JONES
DIRECTOR – JUSTIN AUDIBERT
DESIGNER – STEPHEN BRIMSON LEWIS
COSTUME DESIGN – HANNAH CLARK
LIGHTING DESIGN – MATT PEEL
COMPOSER – RUTH CHAN