The Taming of The Shrew, directed by Justin Audibert, at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, March 11th and 12th 2019
By Jeannie Farr and Sonia Perello
‘1590s. England is a matriarchy.’ An invitation to historical, meta-theatrical reflection, or the product of careless thinking (the setting being Italy), thus this production presents an imagined society where female characters control societal structures while male characters are kept as ornaments. The piece flaunts intentional cross-gender casting (except for the servant Grumio), and Lady Baptista is now the mother of two sons. Lacking female counterparts in Shakespeare’s play, the opening scene includes newly added, silent, long-haired male characters keeping their eyes down and moving graciously to clarify for the audience the meaning of the gender signifiers being used in this production. Names have been gender-flipped, all except swaggering Katherine’s. Sporting short hair and looking women in the eye, he expresses his non-conformism, director Audibert explained during the Q&A. Characters wear gender-specific clothing: delicately embroidered breeches for the men and hefty, voluminous skirts for the women. Although their fabrics and designs are meant to convey visually a sense of reversed hierarchy and power, the effect is contradictory: while the men stride freely on stage, the women’s movements are restricted by their clothes, and we wonder whose matriarchal decision it was to have dressed them in panniers, crinolines, and corsets.
In the programme, Audibert states: ‘I’m interested in seeing what happens when you get female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa.’ Arguably, Audibert’s ‘vice versa’ translates as male actors playing traditionally weak female roles, which raises the question: is Katherine a weak female character? We argue she is not.
In our view, the production’s misunderstanding of the power dynamics between Petruchio (now Petruchia) and Katherine is most evident in scene 2.1, the characters’ first encounter. Because it has been primed through the other characters’ previous observations, the scene creates enormous expectation of mayhem and violence in the audience. Petruchio’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s text before Katherine enters allows him to reveal his wit and manipulative plans to woo her ‘with some spirit when she comes! / Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.’ (2.1.165-67). Completely at odds with the text, Clare Price (Petruchia) delivers the speech in a dreamy lovelorn tone, with hopeful sighs and eager looks into the distance. As we have already witnessed Kate ‘railing’, now we would expect to see him enter the scene with some ‘spirit’. Yet in this production, a dispirited Katherine tiptoes onstage. Joseph Arkley plays the character expressing a simplistic conception of ‘female’, which requires that he is already subdued when he enters the scene.
We are clearly in a dualistic, vice versa world, which potentially is meant to challenge us and invite us to interrogate socially constructed gender behaviour. However, if this play is about anything, it is about power relationships as they are lived out in a patriarchal society. The directorial approach to this scene does not challenge patriarchal attitudes, it reinforces them.
Having just been engaged by Petruchia’s soliloquy, the audience is presented with the ideological argument of female empowerment the production claims to advocate. This encourages us to root for Petruchia, although our support backfires. We’ve seen Kate behaving extremely brutally to his brother Bianco (James Cooney), threatening to cut his long hair with a pair of scissors in 1.2. Kate’s violence is frightening and unattractive. It would be hard for an audience to relate to the male actor: we don’t like him, we cannot sympathise with him, we are on Petruchia’s side. Martin Wiggins’ piece in the programme suggests how Shakespeare’s play invites the audience to engage with both characters (Kate gives as good as she gets), and to realise that both characters are as witty as they are scary. But in this production we are repeatedly invited to endorse Petruchia’s campaign and reject Kate. As a sad by-product, the decision also vitiates the witty stichomythia. Kate is mainly angry, Petruchia mainly aggressive, the wit expressed in the words, but not the delivery. The stage business of Petruchia feinting towards Kate’s genitals in the ‘tongue-tail’ exchange is, in our view, a vulgar attempt to elicit a cheap laugh from the audience and an insult to their intelligence. Boringly literal, it is a form of abuse, whichever sex performs it. If the production wanted the play to enter in a dialogue with our time, what is it that it argues for with this clumsy, heavy-handed ‘matriarchy’?
The imbalance of the exchange in 2.1 turns the production into a study of abuse from this moment on. The scene continues in this muddied optique to the end, after Petruchia’s long speech, Baptista’s ‘’tis a match’ (l. 308), and Petruchia’s last line: ‘We will be married a Sunday’ (l. 313). Many productions have imaginatively displayed or implied how, meanwhile, a silent Kate resists what is ahead. In this one, Kate sits subjugated, slouching helplessly, his jaw dropped in disbelief, depressed, self-effacing, unobtrusive.
This Kate is already won, defeated, given no leeway at all. We next see him at the wedding, dressed like a doll and with all his efforts to resist reduced to petulant misbehaviour rather than expressions of thwarted agency, which is confusing, given that the character is supposed to fight back until, at least, 4.5. The marriage takes place, and the servant Grumio (Richard Clews) ropes Katherine so that his master can leave with her new spouse on a leash. From now on, the consequences of treating Kate as a defeated cipher are brutally exposed, often flouting the text. Once at Petruchia’s home, and deprived even of the chance to be physically aggressive towards the servant, as indicated in the original stage direction ‘Beats him’ (4.3.31), Kate clumsily chases Grumio before the servant leaves laughing, having been the one who ‘beat’ his better. This again reduces Kate’s strength, who delivers ‘My tongue will tell’, etc. (4.3.76-80) in a sobbing, cracking voice. The stress variations in the pentameter, alliteration and placement of vowels of these four lines of resistance demand a vigorous delivery. Arkley’s (consequent on his performance choice to emphasise Kate’s position as a victim) is at odds with the scansion which, unfortunately, deprives these lines of emotional meaning.
By this point Kate has had an emotional and psychological breakdown, and displays severe symptoms of traumatic shock: rocks himself, chews and regurgitates the straps of his sleeves, hides cowed behind the mannequin. These performance choices are one-dimensional, thus reducing the complexity of Kate’s character and his/her efforts to resist to a simplistic representation of victimhood. The character’s (and therefore the gender’s) primal urge to agency and independent thought is annulled.
Given that from his first meeting with Petruchia, Kate seems subdued and depressed, scene 4.5. can neither be a capitulation, nor can it be a meeting of minds (as it has elsewhere been interpreted). In this production, Katherine accepts Petruchia’s authority in the ‘sun-moon’ exchange after taking his wedding ring and looking at the sky through it: marriage alone is the enforcer of their agreement. Audibert had emphasised that, in this production, they were trying to show two characters in love. We certainly cannot find them.
In 5.2, the last scene, a ‘rehabilitated’ Kate resumes his earlier animalistic swagger: shoulders waving, jaw protruding, reminiscent of a hooligan or a bouncer. When he brings Bianco and the Widower (Leo Wan) on stage, the violence of the scene is a repetition of the moment in 1.2, when he bashed his brother. Clearly Kate hasn’t changed; neither has he been tamed: he has been domesticated. He sits on the floor, next to Petruchia, rather like a dog sits next to its mistress, looking at her for approval. The vice versa interpretation of this play renders this production as one dimensional as this reductive picture.
Other infelicities flow from this interpretation. For a production that claims to have turned the tables by presenting a matriarchal version of the play, it depicts some of the worst female stereotypes of patriarchal construct: the control-freak mother-in-law, the bitter aunty-spinster, the acid Lady Bracknell. Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) is turned into a gullible, love-blinded woman whose fate is completely at a man’s disposition. The opportunity has been lost: this is matriarchy seen through the patriarchal gaze.
All quotes from: William Shakespeare, The Taming of The Shrew, ed. by Ann Thompson, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
The views expressed in this piece are the authors’ own.
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