Jo Clifford takes on one of Shakespeare’s more troublesome plays in this re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew, co-produced by Sherman Theatre and Tron Theatre.
Fronting up to the original’s troublingly misogynistic story arc – the taming of the strong-spirited Kate – Clifford sets her play in a post-patriarchal world where women rule. Genders are swapped and so Kate (Matt Gavan) and Bianca (Francois Pandolfo) are actually two eligible young bachelors, with the female Petruchio (Scarlett Brookes), Gremio (Claire Cage) and Lucentio (Hannah Jarrett-Scott) vying for their hand – for sport as much as for love.
As if to mirror – or even parody – the gameplaying in Shakespeare’s Shrew, Clifford and director Michael Fentiman imbue proceedings with a lively, knowing theatricality even before we have entered the auditorium. The men in the audience are asked to wait in the foyer until the women are seated in the best seats near the front. The Christopher Sly character is an obnoxious audience member who refuses to move from the front row in protest – only to feel the wrath of the ushers, two of whom turn out to be our Bianca and Petruchio.
It soon becomes very meta: are we, the audience, pretending to be in a female-led society or are we still inhabiting the world in its current context while watching actors play out Shrew in some parallel dimension? The audience is kept guessing throughout, as are the characters at times, at one point, in a witty scene led by Alexandria Riley, admitting they can’t remember which role they are all playing (simultaneously Tranio and Curtis).
The ensemble is strong, with particular credit to Hannah Jarrett-Scott as chief actor-musician. While the team cheerfully cocks a snook at the plot’s ridiculous complexities, this new version is a darkly political piece. It is a sexy world – Madeleine Girling and Joseff Fletcher’s excellent set and lighting throw us into some sort of vaudevillian lounge bar – but also a dangerous one.
Any joy evaporates once Petruchio has tamed her Kate. It is startling how abusive Petruchio’s behaviour becomes once Shakespeare’s prose is scaled back by Clifford. When the language is made sparingly contemporary, a coercive relationship is plainly evident (Petruchio declaring “it will be what o’clock I say it is” is especially sinister here).
There are issues: Gavan’s Kate is huffy rather than feisty and so his transformation is less pronounced than other versions, and Petruchio’s final speech seems to excuse, or even heroize, the female version’s behaviour, despite the gaslighting undertones within.
The company seems as committed to the rebellion as it is to the cause, but that’s no bad thing. In the most part, this remains an imaginative, timely re-examination of a contentious work.