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RSC’s Taming of the Shrew subverts gender roles in a production pertinent to our #MeToo culture

  • Culture
Josh Mock, BA Arabic and Persian

The matriarchal reimagining of 1590’s Italy in this production and the objectification of male characters leaves men squirming in their seats

Each year I look forward to the winter RSC Shakespeare productions at the Barbican, and this year I was not disappointed. With each performance offering 20 £5 tickets to 18-25 year-olds, I struggle to think of many reasons why young people shouldn’t go and hear some of the greatest stories ever told by the Bard. With the powerful messages portrayed in Justin Aubert’s gender-flipped interpretation of Taming of the Shrew, it is even more important that young people go to see this fantastic production. 

In a subversive reinterpretation of the 16th-century work, women take the main roles of Shakespeare’s play about power, patriarchy, and control. The central character, Petruchia (renamed from the original Petruchio and played by Claire Price), tames and abuses her husband Katherine (whose name remains intact), played by Joseph Arkley, into doing her bidding. Two bachelorettes, Lucentia and Baptista, played by Emily Johnstone and Amanda Harris respectively, fight over Katherine’s younger brother Bianco – a rather submissive and unassuming figure played by James Cooney. The matriarchal reimagining of 1590’s Italy in this production and the objectification of male characters mirrors the way the patriarchy functions, leaving men squirming in their seats. What struck me most was that Petruchia’s degrading and abusive treatment of Kate stayed behind closed doors while her friends praised her for getting her husband in line. It reminded me of figures like R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Crosby who were revered as public idols while they assaulted and abused countless women out of the public view. This subversion of gender roles on stage forces the crowd to reflect on the power men hold in society and the ways that this has been abused countless times; this adaptation is both timely and pertinent to our current #MeToo culture.

The performance also accommodated several actors with access requirements. Biondella, played by Amy Trigg, was a wheelchair user and was not held back in the slightest by the staging. A whole scene involving Curtis, played by deaf actor, Charlotte Arrowsmith, was partly in sign language. At first, I found this slightly alienating for those of us who do not understand sign language. Nonetheless, I gathered that deaf people must also find many areas of entertainment and society alienating as they are unable to comprehend due to a lack of accommodation. Perhaps this was a point the RSC wanted to make, and I did not mind when I considered this. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s words are equally as poetic and beautiful in sign language as they are spoken. 

The production should also be praised for its artistic and visual achievements too. There was impressive and atmospheric music written by Ruth Chan to accompany the acting onstage. Gorgeous costumes were designed by Hannah Clark, which even had comic aspects at times – the audience never failed to laugh at Gremia (Sophie Stanton) who seemed to float across the stage in what I can only imagine, were hidden wheels in her dress. In the background of all this were beautiful sets designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. 

Taming of the Shrew is simultaneously hilarious and unsettling, making it a must-see. The RSC has championed a fresh and innovative interpretation of this timeless 1590’s comedy, and at £5, I felt I got every pound’s worth out of my ticket. 

Taming of the Shrew is playing until 18 January 2020 at Barbican Theatre, London. 

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