How do you solve a problem like The Taming of the Shrew? Certainly one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays, it proves a challenge that each modern production must undertake. This latest version from the RSC, directed with keen precision by Justin Audibert, has a kernel of an idea that almost manages to dodge the trickier elements of this play. His version has been gender-swapped, moving from the patriarchy of the play's origin to a matriarchy. An initially fascinating concept, it sadly does not prove enough to fix the issues to be had with Shakespeare's text.
For the unfamiliar, the set-up of The Taming of the Shrew is that Baptista has set a strict ruling that her youngest son, Bianco, will not marry until her eldest, Katherine ("Kate the cursed") is married. Seemingly an impossible task, the arrival of a pair of noble women (Lucentia and Petruchia) may change this as they set about wooing each of the sons.
A talented ensemble makes the most of their gender-swapped casting, with several scene-stealing comedic turns amongst the cast. Amanda Harris exudes swagger as the central matriarch Baptista, whilst Laura Elsworthy (Trania) and Sophie Stanton (Gremia) bring a wealth of personality to their respective parts. Joseph Arkley manages to find the sympathy within the ferocity of Katherine, whilst Emily Johnstone's Lucentia makes an endearing besotted figure. But the production belongs to a wild-haired Claire Price who gives Petruchia a fascinating intensity and an unreadable quality. Price comfortably finds the grey areas to her character's actions, with an almost unknowable motivation for her taming of Katherine.
Around the cast is a production of immense quality. Stephen Brimson Lewis' design has the confidence to leave much of the stage bare, seemingly opening it out to create an even more expansive space to perform. Hannah Clark's costume design is a resplendent delight, feeling both of the period and adapted to fit the play's central interpretation. In fact the production is a truly gorgeous one, amplified by some fabulous music composed by Ruth Chan.
It is something that for all the skill in its construction the text at the production's centre keeps tugging away from the interpretation placed upon it, making it increasingly uncomfortable to watch. I'm not sure Audibert's take finds a way to make The Taming of the Shrew comfortably entertaining for a modern audience. It is noticeable that, where other comedies at the RSC seem to build in terms of laughter, in this production the second half was noticeably free of laughs. And the central concept prevents any meaningful reinterpretation of Katherine's words in the play's final scene. It feels ultimately an opportunity lost. For all of the production's skill and charm The Taming of the Shrew remains a deeply uncomfortable and problematic play.