Review: Taming of the Shrew, RSC at The Barbican

Taming of The Shrew RSC at The Barbican picture credit: Ikin Yum

Taming of The Shrew RSC at The Barbican picture credit: Ikin Yum - Credit: Archant

A hugely enjoyable, lusty gender swap prdouction fails to shed fresh light on Shakespeare’s problematic play of coersive control

For the RSC's current season at the Barbican, director Justin Audibert gives The Taming of the Shrew a gender revamp - swapping roles in Shakespeare's problematic play and setting the action in a matriarchal Padua where mothers are desperate to marry off their sons.

The result is hugely enjoyable as a lusty assault on human vanity.

But the gender swap fails to shed new light on the play's troubling power dynamics.

Given that 'shrew' is a misogynist term referring specifically to women, it's confusing to discover Katherine is not only played by a man [Joseph Arkley] she is a man, but is still named Katherine.

Petruchia [a charismatic Claire Price] swaggers like a man, though she is of course a woman, as she brings her husband to heel. Audibert highlights the cruelties of the taming by presenting Petruchia's country estate as a stark, uninviting place with grey cavernous rooms and howling winds outside.

Arkley appears in rags and his truthful performance contrasts with the comedy in the Padua scenes. But seeing a man broken doesn't say anything particularly new about the enduring oppression reserved for women, nor does it make the process of conforming any more palatable.

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The gender swap is less confusing in the sub-plot: Katherine's brother, the beautiful, much-desired Blanco is played with plenty of hair-flicking petulance by James Cooney.

Their mother, Baptista [Amanda Harris] is an unctuous grand dame desperate to marry off her wayward sons. Sophie Stanton is Gremia, the ageing love rival for Bianco's hand to Emily Johnstone's Lucentia, here a solidly posh girl blinded by love.

Stanton is a pleasure to behold as she pouts knowingly or - literally - glides across the stage. Movement choreographed by Lucy Cullingford is consistently sharp, and the trussed up periwigs and suffocating dresses are a joy.

If this all sounds rather like panto, well, it is. Whether the boys-liking-girls-liking-boys fluidity vanguards any progressive gender reconfiguring is another matter. Arguably, the literalness of the staging works against a reading that shows how pernicious the language of coercive control can be.

Ultimately too many points fizzle out and the problems of the play refuse to budge.