Back to Stratford upon Avon this week to see the gender swapped production of 'The Taming of the Shrew' which has just opened. We thought we'd seen this before, but when I got home and checked through my old programmes it turns out I hadn't, and that any familiarity with the plot was as much as could be picked up from common knowledge and '10 Things I Hate About You'.
The relationship between Katherine and Petruchio is theoretically a difficult one for modern audiences, but despite that it's put on frequently enough to suggest that people are quite happy to watch Katherine being forced into obedience. About the only homework I did before going to see it was read This article from The Guardian back in 2012 which raises a few interesting points.
I've at least read 'H is for Hawk' so the falconry references in the text were not lost on me, but they do nothing to make me think Shakespeare is any less misogynistic in this case. A woman is not a hawk after all, and the starving and sleep deprivation that Petruchio subjects Kate to isn't made better because he more or less shares the same deprivations - he's making the choice after all, she is not.
Thanks to tremendous performances from Joseph Arkley as Katherine, and Claire Price as Petruchia though, I can see this as a love story.
We were intrigued by the idea of a gender flipped production, where most of the men become women, and the women men, and the reality didn't disappoint. I don't think I had any clear idea of what changing the genders would make the play look and sound like, but the things that stood out where not necessarily the things I expected.
Hannah Clark's costume designs felt perfect - the women's gowns are sumptuous, in rich colours, swords or daggers at their waists, the men's more delicate and muted. They look like they've been lifted directly from Hilliard miniatures, but seem feminine in comparison to the block colours the women wear, and that's the first thing that felt different.
Seeing a stage full of women in a Shakespeare play feels different, and welcome, too, but the idea of a woman looking to sell of her sons to the highest bidder didn't feel particularly different to a father doing so with his daughters. Maybe because historically any well to do family would have been arranging their sons marriages as diligently as their daughters and for much the same reasons.
When Katherine becomes a man though the violent manifestations of his anger and frustration feel more threatening to me then if they were coming from a woman, and in turn Petruchia's casual violence towards her servant seem more shocking. Because Arkley is a physically imposing presence on stage the vulnerability of his position as a man in a woman's world is highlighted too. The way he holds the balance between making his temper really threatening to the status quo and displaying equally real vulnerability is brilliant.
Claire Price is the perfect counterfoil here too. Her Petruchia is vivid, attractive, and mercurial. The chemistry between the pair is what made me believe this could be a love story based on an instant mutual attraction. It doesn't deflect how horrible Petruchia/Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is, but by the Sun and Moon scene it's possible to believe that Katherine is consenting to play the same game as Petruchia. Once that choice is made the balance of power changes to something more equal - trust given has to be respected.
It's still a problematic play for me, but this production is brilliant. Sophie Stanton especially is a comedy genius, the way she glides across the stage as if on castors would have been worth the admission charge alone, but it is Price and Arkley who steal the show, making it a compelling mix of funny, challenging, and disturbing. It's shaping up to be a really good season at the RSC.