Since he was appointed as Artistic Director of the RSC in 2012, Greg Doran has worked his way through the Shakespearean canon in a methodical manner. He now brings two of the more problematic texts (Shrew and Measure for Measure), together with ‘As You Like It’, for a 10 day residency at The Lowry. All three plays are performed by 27 actors as a reparatory company and it is a real treat for northern audiences to see these productions, ahead of their transfer to London at the end of the year.

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is listed in First Folio as a Comedy but over the years has become an increasingly awkward piece of theatre to produce, with its themes of misogyny and cruelty looking very dated to a modern theatre audience. This RSC production neatly sidesteps the issue by performing a gender swap on the entire cast, turning Elizabethan England into a matriarchal society where women hold power and men are the subservient sex. This device highlights the absurdity of the plays inherent sexism well, bringing the comedic elements much more to the fore by trying to laugh at problems arising in the text and thereby subverting it.

The main plot revolves around Petruchia (Claire Price) wooing and taming fearsome Katherine (Joseph Arkley), but in this production almost equal weight is given to Bianco (James Cooney) and his various suitors, as they fight for his favour. This fuller and richer plot exposition allows a dizzying number of mistaken identities and farcical plot devices to be explored, further adding to the comedic richness.

By broadening the scope, Director Justin Audibert try’s to put the play firmly into the comedic category and attempts to disguise the inherent problems with the basic premise of the plot. However, he is only partially successful, as no amount of slapstick and physical comedy can prevent some of the darker themes continually seeping through. We close the first half with Petruchia roping Katherine and pulling him off stage declaring ‘he is my goods, my chattels, horse, my ox, my everything’. The belittling continues as Katherine is subjected to starvation, sleep deprivation and beating until he becomes subservient to the will of his Mistress. Although power is wielded by a woman in this case, it is equally ugly in its execution and not much comedy can be mined despite the sexual reversal. As an illumination of the study of the use of sexual dominance it is instructive, but in the context of an otherwise overtly comedic interpretation, the change of gears grates on the ear.

Price and Arkley spar excellently as the main protagonists in the early scenes and Arkley brings pathos to the gradual breaking down of Katherine, to the point where she delivers the famous final speech (thy lord, thy king, thy governor) without any hint of the sarcasm or scorn that often accompanies it. Both Sophie Stanton (Gremia) and Laura Elsworthy (Trania) provided excellent comedic support during the sub plot, Stanton provoking particular hilarity throughout with her gliding gait and sticky sword! The RSC also put another crack in the glass ceiling with the casting of actors with disabilities, Charlotte Arrowsmith signing the part of gossipy servant Curtis with great humour and physicality.

As one would expect from our leading Shakespeare company the costuming by Hannah Clark was beautifully observed, the sumptuous dresses reflective of the power status of women in this society. The cavernous space of the Lowry’s Quays theatre worked against the staging, which lacked the intimacy necessary for comedy and was so central to the success of the original staging of the production in Stratford.

Verdict: A farcical and innovative interpretation with an undercurrent of darkness lurking beneath.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 27th September 2019

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★