Jo Clifford gender flips Shakespeare's notorious 'problem play', The Taming Of The Shrew. Does it work with women at the helm? Emily Garside reviews:

Jo Clifford has created a new version of Shakespeare’s  The Taming of the Shrew that goes one step beyond the usual ‘gender flip’ and offers a full twist on the classic tale. But the gender flip, and the messages therein, ultimately become as confused as, well one of Shakespeare’s gender flipped plots. However, you cannot fault the thought, and spirit in Clifford’s writing. Equally spirited, and worthy of commandment, are the flawless cast who breathe new life into this classic, but classically difficult play.

In Clifford’s version, women are in charge of the world – Priests are Priestesses, women own the wealth and the power, heterosexuality is tolerated but not encouraged. This goes some way to solving the problems of this notoriously difficult play. This should offer some answers to the problems of the original, where a man ‘tames’ his new wife then bullies her into submission.

Taming Shrew Sherman Theatre

Scarlett Brookes & Matt Gavan (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

It seems that initially Clifford is fighting fire with fire. Scarlett Brookes’ Petruchio is a man turning the tables on the play by ‘taming’ her boy ‘Kate’ – points for at least two repetitions of the phrase “Kiss Me Kate”. Metatheatrical commentary rather than gender becomes the stronger strand of this production.

The Taming of the Shrew is energetic and directed by Michael Fentiman with a clear eye for style. The cast of seven move between character, narration and music with ease. Particularly engaging is Alexandria Riley as Tranio, whose rapport with Claire Cage‘s Gremio creates a strong foundation for the narration. Matt Gavan and Francois Padolfo do an admirable job of the put-upon men of the piece, with a great comedy rapport for the scenes they share. Padolfo has the comedic role, at which he excels with a dry wit and a wink, while Gavan gives an endearing and awkward performance with a beautifully delivered soliloquy as final punctuation.

Hannah Jarrett-Scott;, Louise Ludgate & Alexandria Riley (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

The staging is slick; Madeline Girling’s design offers a bold and strong identity to the piece. With a combination of gold gilt and a slightly scruffy edge running through costume and set, there’s a sense of a world created within the bordering gossamer curtains. The circular centre stage gives an echo of circus and is used to great effect in putting characters on show. Teamed with Josef Fletcher’s sound design and musical arrangements from Hannah Jarrett-Scott, there is a real sense of being pulled inside a theatrical realm where time is slightly skewed from with the world as we know it, but also with a constant nod to the conventions of theatre.

These metatheatrical elements are The Taming of the Shrew‘s real strength; they point to a production that seems a gimmick at house opening, but actually maintains and integrates throughout the performance. Such self-conscious theatricality works. The use of hand-held microphones; acknowledging the cuts in the text; a bit about the dreariness of Early Modernist Academics are all delightful and will annoy anyone who has ever worked at The Globe.

Louise Ludgate (image courtesy of Mark Douet)

Ultimately, the play will do better if it focusses on what it says about patriarchal stories, rather than on the specifics of the gender politics within it. The women telling, or retelling, the story seems to be the heart of the script. But the problematic plot with Kate and Pertrucio remains so… with women somehow coming out the worse. Instead of having the conviction to follow through on this post-patriarchal world, Fentimen’s direction ends in confusion, with the audience worrying for Kate at the hands of the women and creating concerns about contemporary domestic violence. All of which are valid, important points, but feel a part of another play, or at least another version of this one.

The Taming of the Shrew‘s final act, despite the touching delivery of Kate’s monologue (an excellent performance from Gavan), feels at odds with the world Clifford has created. Feeling sorry for Kate, as a man, seems to confuse the gender commentary to this point. None of which takes away from Clifford’s wry adaptation and bold reclamation of the notorious ‘problem play’.

The Taming of the Shrew played at the Sherman Theatre until 16 March 2019. For more information, please visit the venue website.