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The Taming of the Shrew review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘inventive gender-flipped production’

Claire Price and Joseph Arkley in The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Ikin Yum Claire Price and Joseph Arkley in The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Ikin Yum

It’s a woman’s world in Justin Audibert’s take on The Taming of the Shrew. He’s taken one of Shakespeare’s ugliest plays and flipped it so that the male characters are played by women while all the female characters are played by men. The resulting production takes place in a matriarchal past in which women sport swords and control the purse strings while men hang around the house waiting to be married off.

Costume designer Hannah Clark has kitted out the women in sumptuous skirts, worn as status symbols, and helmet-like wigs, while the men wear floral breeches, their long hair curtaining down their backs.

Joseph Arkley’s Kate has defiantly cropped locks. When we first encounter him, he’s munching insolently on a chicken leg. He refuses to play the part society has allocated him. Claire Price’s renegade Veronese Petruchia crashes into Baptista’s house and determines to have him.

The Sherman Theatre recently staged a similarly flipped production, using Jo Clifford’s pared-down version of the text. The role reversal provides a way into the play without having to show a woman being ground down and brutalised.

Audibert’s production is one of clarity – all the various plot strands, the marital and financial wrangling are made clear. He also milks as much comedy as he can out of the earlier scenes, though perhaps to the detriment of the play’s darker, nastier moments. Sophie Stanton’s Gremia can raise a laugh with a single well-timed sigh. Laura Elsworthy as Trania brings wit and clarity to the often convoluted Lucentia subplot. Price combines the dash and swagger of Lord Flashheart with the impish energy of Carol Kane.

After Kate and Petruchia are married, the shift in tone feels less sure-footed. The breaking of Kate is still difficult to watch. Audibert does not shy away from the brutal treatment meted out to him – Petruchia lassoes Arkley’s Kate off stage like an animal and at one point Kate, starving, falls ravenously on a piece of meat discarded on the floor. It’s jarring, as it should be, but lacks the fury of, say, Caroline Byrne’s recent production for Shakespeare’s Globe. Arkley delivers the final speech of capitulation with a vulnerable but dignified air, but he remains overshadowed even in this. It’s an unpleasant play, whichever way you turn things and the toxicity of power feels oddly under-explored.

What the production does very well is highlight the imbalance and injustice, historical and continuing, of a world in which half the people hold most of the power, where bodies are viewed as property and strength of spirit is a threat to be stamped out, while also demonstrating how rare it is still to see a staging of a Shakespearean play dominated by women. For the most part, the men are reduced to wafting about prettily in the background and saying very little in a way that is eye-opening, if only because it reminds you how often the opposite is true.

Director Justin Audibert ‘The Unicorn’s audience is so honest: if it’s no good they tell you’

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Inventive, funny and eye-opening gender-flipped version of Shakespeare's play of marital subjugation