Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, a comedy which pivots on the central conceit that a bad wife must be domesticated by force, is increasingly unpalatable for a modern audience; and it’s this problem of subject matter, I suspect, which motivates director Justin Audibert’s gender-flipped production, playing now at the Barbican. There’s a lot of lengthy, academic rumination in the accompanying programme about ‘empowering women’ and ‘creating a new world’, but the reality is that a straight version of Shakespeare’s raunchiest comedy feels spectacularly unlikely in 2019 — and if were staged, it would be similarly unlikely to attract the kind of young, diverse audience that I witnessed crowding the stalls on the 9th of November. More fool the young, the diverse.
The ‘shrew’ of the title, Katherine, is well-played by Joseph Arkley, and subjugated by a ferocious Claire Price as Petruchia, whose performance reminded me of Kenneth Branagh’s Jimmy Porter — I would wager this comparison has not often been made before, though Look Back In Anger’s playwright, John Osborne, adored Shrew, and used it as a blueprint for his own first marriage (which failed). In the meantime, Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) competes with Gremia (a riveting Sophie Stanton) for the hand of Katherine’s beautiful younger sister Bianco (James Comey), Lucentia ultimately winning out with the aid of Laura Elsworthy’s boisterous Trania. This, in rough, abrupt silhouette, is the plot. Yet there is a persistent problem.
Sophie Stanton as “a riveting” Gremia.
It has become unfashionable to focus too ardently, in theatre reviews, on the quality of acting; an increasing emphasis on confidence, volume, and posture has mostly subsumed the idea that a person can act badly or well, especially when it comes to comedy. Yet a Shakespearean comedy is not a comedy like any other — every Shakespeare has moments of pathos, heartbreak, and pessimism, and the better the performance, the better this unique quality erupts. But sadly — and really, it is a shame — there is precious little significance accorded to Shakespeare’s wit and language at the Barbican this winter. Most laughs in Audibert’s Shrew are a consequence of sight gags, ‘funny voices’, and a strange Oh-Matron-you-musn’t tone that pervades the entire enterprise; Amelia Donkor’s Hostensia is especially guilty of this, reciting her lines as if she has no idea what they mean, with a fixed grin, and a wildly fluctuating pitch that prods hopefully in every direction, trusting that it will somehow stumble onto an intonation with meaning. It may seem unfair to single out an individual in this way — Donker trained at LAMDA, and I’m sure she is a talented actress when dealing with more modern material — but her flat, loud, random Shakespearean language is emblematic of a miserable trend, in this play, yes, but also in wider theatre, to decide on behalf of an audience that Shakespearean comedies are not funny, and therefore that the dialogue is meaningless; something to be endured while quickly journeying to the next sight gag. This strategy neatly avoids everything about Shakespeare that is glorious, and turns Shrew into a rather dated piece of farce, rather than the sexy, twisted, lewd, and gorgeous play that it is on the page, and was in the hands of Gregory Doran in 2003, when it was also staged by the RSC.
There are bright spots. Sophie Stanton’s Gremia is the notable exception to this production’s typical linguistic paucity, delivering a rich, measured performance incorporating excellent Shakespeare with genuinely funny sight gags, like her rolling, slip-and-slide gait as she moves around the stage. Her charisma and expertise shone through, easily securing more audience laughs than any other character despite barely appearing in the second half. Laura Elsworthy’s Trania put on a very enjoyable showcase of physical theatre, though her two dialects were unsteady and interchangeable. Leo Wan’s Widower was magnificent, holding my eye unceasingly in his few brief scenes; the vanity and almost supernatural superiority complex of the Widower has rarely been so brilliantly delivered. Richard Clews did the best he could with a poorly-used Grumio. The music was excellent, loud, often beautiful — the costumes were faultless, particularly Katherine’s wedding outfit, which is well worth seeing. But these elements, welcome though they are, cannot atone for an RSC production seemingly ignorant of why Shakespeare has endured so well as he has. Shrew is a play of doubles, mirrors, deception, and complex motive, in some ways having more in common with a history like Julius Caesar than with an out-and-out laugh riot like Much Ado About Nothing. When the language becomes only an afterthought, so does the play. More heat than light: but thank God for Gremia.