royal shakespeare company

Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

2427 Shrew Review_PLAY HUB IMAGE_1440x1368

The Taming of the Shrew is often rightly criticised as being a rampant pile of misogyny. The central plot, in which the strong-willed and fiercely independent Katherina is married off to the controlling and abusive Petruchio so that her younger sister Bianca may marry her lover Lucentio, was horrifying to me when I had to study it in school, and it is horrifying now. The Royal Shakespeare Company tries to adapt this for modern day sensibilities by gender swapping the entire cast and setting the play in a matriarchy, but it doesn’t work.

That’s not to say that they don’t give it a very good go. I saw this as another live broadcast in the cinema, and they put on a behind the scenes featurette while everyone in the theatre is having the interval, which in this performance focussed on the costume and make-up designer discussing her they used make-up and design to project what a society in which women are powerful would look like. So the women wear dresses and the men wear breeches, but the dresses are strong dark colours that are practical but take up a lot of space, some wear swords, and the men wear thin layers covered in flowery print. The men are presented as smaller, and weaker than their female counterparts, which is visually quite striking.

The setting was very well done, I have to give them that.

But, at the end of the day, as The Guardian put it, this is a play about power. You can remove the patriarchy that reigns in this world, and you are still left with a partner with total power, who subjects the main character to capriciousness, gas-lighting, starvation, and in several scenes, physical abuse. With the intended goal of this being funny. And it just isn’t. The result was simply very uncomfortable viewing.

When I first read The Taming of the Shrew at 11, I objected to my teacher about the way that Petruchio treats Bianca. She told me that this would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience, and that we see things differently now. Watching it on stage, and having seen so many productions at the Globe, made me recall this conversation and question: did women not go to these plays? Would there not have been a substantial part of the crowd that, even with more Christian ideas of female servitude than we have time for today, not have found a woman being brutalised on stage somewhat repugnant? Perhaps it would have been funnier if the character was in fact a young boy (women were banned from acting until 1660), but I doubt it.

Haha. So funny.

This is not to say that it isn’t a great production. The matriarchs of the family wear this massive Henry VIII-esque costumes that entirely covered their feet and they’d perfected some particularly kind of walking so that when they moved across stage it looked like they were gliding. Bianco, the younger sister, is continuously silly and hare-brained and it was genuinely an interesting experiment with gender roles to have a man preening with his long hair and pretending not to know how to use a guitar in order to seduce his tutor. Her tutor, Lucentio, is played with a facile enthusiasm in what I described to a friend as “Jen from IT Crowd meets Cameron from Ten Things I Hate About You” The ongoing RSC effort to cast inclusively saw one of the secondary characters using a wheelchair, and another character is deaf.

They just whooshed across the floor.

But you just can’t get away from what this play is, ultimately. Great actors make you believe in what they’re doing, and the RSC has great actors. Petruchia is portrayed at this madcap inventor type who only wants the best for her husband, and at the end of the play the two hook up in what appears to be genuine affection for each other, which I supposed was intended to be a attempt to soften the impact but as far as I am concerned, made it even worse. I’ve said several times in these reviews that seeing a Shakespeare play performed really brings to life what was always intended to be a live performance rather than words on a page, but watching Katherina beg for food while the servants laughed at her inversely made it that much harder to consume. I do not think that Shakespeare had anything to be proud of in this play.

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Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.

We kick off our quest with a RSC live broadcast of Troilus and Cressida at Vue Wood Green. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakepeare’s rarest performed plays, probably because it is rubbish. The plot is confusing, all moments of high drama are ultimately fudged, and the play just kind of stops suddenly and one of the secondary characters hurriedly delivers a gross-out speech to distract us all from that fact. Set seven years into the Siege of Troy, Troilus is Paris’ brother, and madly in love with a woman called Cressida, whose father has defected to the Greeks. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, promised to ah, acquaint them. Meanwhile, the Greeks are all hanging around outside in the city in tents, arguing about what to do and not a little bit annoyed with Achilles, who has huffed off to his tent to hang out with Petroclus and is refusing to set a heroic example to the rest of the Greek army. Troilus and Cressida hook up, but the next day, a prisoner exchange means that Cressida is sent to the Greeks to be with her father, and she makes the best of it by getting with Diamene. Troilus is devastated. A bunch of people are killed offstage including Petroclus. Achilles kills Hector in grief.  The play ends. Hamlet it is not.

What the RSC did with it though, was pretty clever. Set in some dystopian steampunk universe, with high-octane acting, shirtless men and one of the best percussionists in the world providing the soundtrack, they did a pretty good job of entertaining me, which is ultimately really what these plays were written for.

He actually only got round to putting a shirt on for curtain call.

The RSC went all out on diversity, going with a gender balanced cast, making the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicit and getting a deaf actor to play Cassandra.

Charlotte Arrowsmith was pretty good at Cassandra – she signed most of her lines and had another actor vocalise the important bits. It has to be said that I didn’t in fact notice that she was Deaf until I saw the interval interviews, so well done on a great performance.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

The RSC to make the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicitly sexual and it really, really worked. They didn’t just shoehorn in some queers because it’s fashionable, it was written that way. Whatever Shakespeare’s original intentions were with that dialogue, he made a deliberate editorial choice to make it ambiguous enough in 1604 that you could interpret it as super gay and thank God I live in 2018 where that vision can be realised.

This is fine.

My laurel crown has to go to Oliver Ford Davies, however, who stole every scene he appeared in as Pandarus. Given that Troilus and Cressida are both boring characters, Pandarus’ creepiness and voyeurism was really funny and a highlight of the play, as well as delivering what was one of the funniest lines:

Amen. Whereupon I will show you a chamber with a
bed; which bed, because it shall not speak of your
pretty encounters, PRESS IT TO DEATH: away!”

The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that we were only one of four attendees at this live broadcast. I have to blame this on Vue making it almost impossible to find and book the showing. It took me several goes, and having to shift from my phone to a desktop computer, to be able to buy a ticket. I hope they fix this, because I really appreciated being able to nip up to my local cinema to see a show being aired a hundred miles away, and I don’t want this cultural gift to be taken away from me because of poor ticket sales.

A good night out. Looking forward to the next one.

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