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Fun to be had with Shakespeare's problem play

The Taming of the Shrew, RSC Stratford, to August 31.

I was a more than a little apprehensive about this. The play is surely misogynistic in the extreme: A father sells one daughter off to the highest bidder while forcing another into an abusive marriage where her husband deprives her of food, drink and sleep in order to “tame” her.

And this is a comedy.

You could try to argue that Shakespeare intended the play to be a satire; that it’s not meant to be taken literally. But still, there’s that nasty taste it leaves in the mouth of modern audiences. For example, how are we to take Katherine’s advice to wives to “place your hands below your husband’s foot”?

This re-imagining of the play by director Justin Audibert tries to solve the problem for us by flipping all the genders.

Katherine and Bianco are brothers in this version (Joseph Arkley and James Cooney), and Petruchia, the “tamer” of Katherine, is a woman (played with tremendous verve by Claire Price). The brothers’ father and the other suitors are all female characters.

The gender-flip works – almost.

The women are in control and the men are now subservient losers. Katherine (a man, remember) is not so much an out-of-control free spirit as a spoilt brat who is “tamed” remarkably easily, and Bianco is played as a big baby, and camp to boot.

It’s bawdy and funny and the performances are terrific: Full marks to Charlotte Arrowsmith as Curtis, Amelia Donkor (Hortensia), Amanda Harris (Baptista), and Sophie Stanton (Gremia). There’s even some great music along the way.

And yet.

There’s no getting away from the fact that at the heart of it all is abuse and control. The balance of power might have shifted thanks to the gender-flip, but does that make it more acceptable?

There’s a lot of fun to be had in this production, but it will surely get you thinking as well.

For tickets go to:

Pictures by Ikin Yum © RSC

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