Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew gets a gender-flipby Shruthi Venkatesh February 28 2019, 9:31 pm Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 59 secs
Jo Clifford was asked to adapt The Taming of the Shrew, the play which she hated the most once. “I wasn’t ready to do it then,” she says at the beginning of her career. So when the Sherman theatre’s artistic director Rachel O’Riordan approached her, she felt she had “unfinished business”.
She says “I was John Clifford, living as a man. Now I’m Jo Clifford, living as a woman.” She felt that the characters in the play had to go through a similar metamorphosis. The forthcoming production at the RSC (Royal Shakespearian Company) similarly locates the play in a matriarchal society. In Clifford’s version, Katherine is a man and Petruchio is a woman in a world where male virtue is prized and women wield the power. “As a Trans theatre-maker,” she says, “I understand that we need to rethink what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman.” She adds that Shakespeare was also writing at a period of incredible change between men and women - “part of the gorgeousness of his work is that he celebrates that”.
Francois Pandolfo and Matt Gavan in rehearsals at the Sherman
Many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the power dynamics between men and women and there is a clear connection in The Taming of the Shrew. The relationship between Katherine and Petruchio, in which she is bartered and dominated, has long been a source of worry in the play. It remains one of his most performed plays, and lends itself to experimentation. Phyllida Lloyd cast Kathryn Hunter and Janet McTeer as Katherine and Petruchio in her all-female take at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003. There have also been all-male productions, including Propeller’s 2007 version directed by Edward Hall, which highlighted the cruelty.
The Taming of the Shrew is frequently labelled as a “problem play”, but some of the biggest challenges is that it presents to an adapter are those of structure, says Clifford. “It’s three plays rolled into one.” She further explains that the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine is clearly “what turned Shakespeare on”.
During Shakespeare’s works, English “had an energy and rawness to it,” says Clifford. “It hadn’t been worn out by centuries and exploration and imperialism.” Theatre was a new thing too, rather than a “marginalised form”. Theatre was “where it was at. It wasn’t drowned out by naturalism and all that shit.”
Matt Gavan says that playing Katherine has presented him with challenges. Ultimately, she has no control and “that lack of agency is obviously an unusual situation to play as a male actor.” He explains “the women are the powerbrokers, politicians and soldiers, so it’s them who have the war-like bearing, and we are boys who are objects of beauty, used to being looked at and not in control”. He also thinks some of Katherine’s rage “comes from feeling not beautiful, from feeling awkward and undesirable and being angry at himself for being bothered by that. That torsion is fun to play with.”
When Justin Audibert was offered the opportunity to direct the play he knew that he needed to find a new way into the text that addressed the way women were represented. “I have to be aware of the privilege I carry as a man and as the director,” he says. He saw that men got the main share of the lines; he felt that this was a way to address this issue, too. “I don’t think the world needs to see any more imagery of men abusing women. There’s plenty of that out there in pop culture and in society,” he says. “As an artist, you’re responsible for the stuff you put out in the world, and even if I wanted to show how horrifically Katherine is treated, I would still be putting that out there.” But, he says, flip the roles around and the play becomes a different animal. “You can’t do the play and not do the taming – this was a way of doing that.”
According to Audibert, “women control access to education, they control money – people talk about money all the time in this play – and male virginity is prized”. He initially considered setting it in a parallel contemporary world, but “it felt like a bolder thing to set it in Shakespeare’s time” he says. Amanda Harris, who plays Baptista, also starred in Lloyd’s all-female production and 25 years ago played the role of Katherine. “It’s not just women playing men’s parts; it shows up the absurdity,” she says.
Claire Price, who portrays Petruchia is fascinated by “the language of power in the mouths of women.” She adds, “that, in a patriarchy, the men are not free either - there are things they mustn’t be seen to do. They need to not lose their fortune, to manage their money.” The world they’re creating for this production is, she makes clear, not a utopia. “It’s just as complicated. Power is not freedom. There are freedoms that come with power but it’s not the same thing.”
Credits to Natasha Tripney, with a peculiar report on the play dealing with the society and its so-called stereotype. The Taming of the Shrew is at the Sherman theatre, Cardiff, from 28 February-16 March. The RSC’s production is at the Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 8 March-31 August.