A lively production of one of Shakespeare’s more hard-to-swallow comedies throws light on gender identity
Gender swap Shakespeare isn’t new, after all the man himself blurred male and female in many of his plays. A mix-up over gender plays a pivotal role in many of his comedies, providing plenty of laughs and handy plot diversions along the way.
This year is, of course, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The huge cultural and patriotic industry that revolves around the man from Stratford has been in whirlwind mode. There’s even been a first folio found on a Scottish island just in time for the knees-up. But Shakespeare the playwright is, of course, far more than than plastic skull key rings and quotable magnets. His words, his imagination, the scope, beauty, depth and madness of his plays are what draws us to his works so long after his death. And one of the beauties of his plays is that they allow plenty of room for interpretation and give performers an opportunity to push the boundaries.
Taming of the Shrew is particularly ripe to be viewed from a different perspective, to have a spotlight thrown on its presentation of gender roles, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own. It may be 400 years since the Bard succumbed to his own muddy death, but plenty of gender stereotypes that he portrays linger into this century.
The Taming of the Shrew at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden is part of a month long festival investigating the changing relations between minority groups and the theatre, with a focus on gender, race and disability. This production sees the main characters switch sex, in a world where the women hold the power and the men are ‘advantageously wed’. It’s a clever conceit performed with wit and enthusiasm, the central message changing the focus and making you think, but not distracting from the fun of it. This is challenging theatre, but one with a smile on its face. The production team further blur the lines as the male Katharina and Bianca are dressed almost as parodies of femininity, both of them wearing corsets, restricted by their gender expectations.
The Taming of the Shrew is not an easy play to like, but in this production the comedy is smoother, the message easier and more on point, Katharina fawning speech to the patriarchy (“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”) highlighting how different “too little payment for so great a debt” sounds when it’s a man saying it about their wife.
This production tears up the rulebook and adds an edge and an energy to a problematic play. If you’re looking for a different Shakespeare to the one the tourist industry shows us, this is it.