It has been called Shakespeare’s problematic comedy and, even if the only information you had about it was the title, it’s not hard to see why. The idea of calling a woman a shrew is bad enough, without adding the idea of taming her into the story. That said, a YouGov poll in 2016 celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare found The Taming of the Shrew to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and it is also one of his most frequently performed.
Here director, Justin Audibert keeps all the silliness and mischief that has made it a favourite with audiences and flipped the genders so that the shrew is now an obstinate man who eventually conforms to make the perfect husband to his loud and powerful wife.
In keeping with the Italian language here Petruchio is renamed Petruchia, played by a wild-haired, swaggering, scene-stealing, Claire Price. But while pronouns are changed, Joseph Arkley is still called Katherine and his more genteel and sought-after sibling Bianca is now his brother, Bianco. It sounds confusing but the switch is easy to follow. Basically, Audibert has kept the play in its original 1590s setting and reimagined it as a matriarchy where it is men who face the social restrictions and are presented by their mothers to rich suitors as marriage material.
This fantasy world works because we’re in a comedy, where Katherine’s petulant eating of chicken legs and discarding the bones on the floor is as difficult as he gets. There is always a risk with a physical imbalance that Katherine’s disobedience comes across as aggression. But it is best not to overthink it. The idea of taming a man is no better than taming a woman, but as a concept the switch is thought-provoking, not least in seeing so many strong female actors on a Shakespearean stage.
The huge Elizabethan dresses are sumptuous, and the performances are very funny. Emily Johnstone brings a cheeky bawdiness to Lucentia; Laura Elsworthy adds a Monty Pythonesque zaniness to Trania, while Sophie Stanton mixes excellent comic timing with skilled physical humour as her Gremia seemingly floats across the stage like a wind-up toy.
The action is accompanied by a live soundtrack from a 7-piece band, raised on a platform on the stage, and their music elevates the common Shakespearean songs to genuinely beautiful interludes.
In all, it is a funny, entertaining evening that doesn’t take itself too seriously and neither should we.★ ★ ★ ★