In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s bold new retelling of The Taming of The Shrew, gender roles are reversed, as women become dominant leaders. The classic patriarchal setting is turned into one of matriarchy, as convention is left behind and women are given centre-stage.
One of Shakepeare’s more controversial plays, Taming of The Shrew explores male dominance and control over women, particularly in regards to parenthood and marriage. This production turns these traditional ideas upside down in order to explore things from a different perspective – what if the women were the ones doing the controlling? Submission becomes dominance in this daring retelling, seeking to provide a new perspective and challenge traditional narratives.
In a world where women hold all the power, is it reasonable to assume that they would use that power to maintain social hegemony in the same way as men? Switching the gender of characters will always provide challenges for a production.
Happily however, The Taming of the Shrew handles it well.
Initial doubts about the production’s treatment of gender were soon swept away. Rather than a statement about how women are no better than the men they replaced, the production had an almost satirical feel to it, prompting the audience to question the ideas on display, particularly the relationship between power and gender.
Katherine (Joseph Arkley), along with his famous fierce temper and stubborn attitude, is gradually broken down as Petruchia (Claire Price) makes it her mission to ‘tame’ him. Arkley and Price were both perfectly suited to their roles, and the shifting dynamic between their characters kept the pace of the production fast and exciting.
Heavier scenes where Katherine is isolated from his family and ‘trained’ to be more submissive were balanced out with more comedic scenes involving Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) and her attempts to woo the favoured son Bianco (James Cooney).
The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, was reminiscent of an Elizabethan style theatre, with wooden panels and many different doors which characters would exit and enter from. This ensured the comedic aspect of the play was not completely lost and allowed the movement on stage to occur fluidly.
Although the play maintained a few comedic elements, and was originally written as a comedy, this new version of The Taming of The Shrew seemed to question its place amongst the rest of Shakespeare’s comedies. Particularly during act two – where the atmosphere became steadily more sinister.
The scenes wherein Petruchia attempts to ‘tame’ Katherine may have felt more at home in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Perhaps this is the point; after all, very few Shakespeare scholars now think it acceptable to portray Katherine’s abuse as comedic. This production seems to suggest that performing The Taming of The Shrew as it was originally written may be awfully inappropriate in the 21st century, and it is only by challenging and subverting the original narrative that we may be able to learn something from it.
Changing the gender of the characters really highlighted just how much of a gender imbalance there is in Shakespeare’s original work. Brothers Katherine and Bianco are the only men who feature prominently within the production, both appearing in less scenes and having less lines than their female counterparts.
It is perhaps strange that it takes a gender reversal for us as an audience to question this imbalance. The lingering question remains: Would it have felt strange if it were men who were taking up the space?
Although nothing within the play deviates from how Shakespeare originally wrote it, changing the gender of the characters alters both how it is performed and how it is perceived. The reversal of social power dynamics is a jarring one when set in the context of such a famous work. This is encapsulated within the closing scene; the women sit on thrones in a circle around the stage, whilst the men sit at their feet.