Shakespeare's fierce, energetic comedy of gender and materialism is turned on its head to offer a fresh perspective on its portrayal of hierarchy and power.

Justin Audibert directs.

Baptista Minola is seeking to sell off her son Katherine to the highest bidder. Cue an explosive battle of the sexes in this electrically charged love story.

Possibly the most famous of all stories about the battle of the sexes, The Taming Of The Shrew can be a bit of a problem play nowadays, its subject matter sitting less than comfortably in the modern age of #MeToo. Justin Audibert, the well-regarded director at the helm of this latest Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) version of the play, is not a man to be fazed by such considerations, however.

Audibert knew that he didn’t want to make a Shrew in the way it’s been done so many times before, so instead he’s having his female actors play traditionally powerful male roles, and vice versa. So for example, the role of Petruchio, which has been renamed Petruchia, is being played by a woman in a woman’s costume, but with the same character motivations and social status as Petruchio in any other production. Likewise Katherine is being played by a male actor as a man and wearing a man’s costume, but has the same social restrictions that a woman in 1590s England would’ve had. In short, the actors are playing their own gender, but Audibert has flipped which gender has control.

Judging by audience reaction on the press night, it’s a decision which has gone down well. Not only does it allow the RSC to make an important contribution to topical conversations about gender and power, it also instills a real sense of something fresh, imaginative and vibrant into Shakespeare’s much-performed work.

The gender-swapping is disorientating - just as one might expect it to be - and as a woman, I was happier seeing power being wielded by a female than a male. But should I have been? The problem with Shrew, gender-flipped or not, is that it’s a story about one sex controlling the other. In truth, I can’t help but feel that as a 21st century woman banging the drum for equal rights, I should be no happier watching a Shrew in which the tables are turned than I would be watching a more traditional interpretation. Neither version presents an even remotely ideal interaction between female and male.

I won’t have been alone in questioning my emotional responses to what unfolded before me - in terms of generating audience reaction, this Shrew surely achieves its desired outcome. As well as being thought provoking, it’s also well acted, visually engaging, delightfully humorous and plenty of fun.

Audibert has gone on record as saying that one of his primary aims was to make his version of the play speak to 'now’. In that regard, he has most certainly and emphatically succeeded.

**** Sue Hull

4 Stars on Wed, 20 Mar 2019

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