The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy with a dark heart – a twisted little love story that’s generally considered one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. And for that very reason, it’s also a great candidate for a gender swap experiment. Nowadays, to watch a man attempt to control his wife by a combination of mental and physical torment is called abuse. But do we react the same when it’s a woman in charge, or is that just considered girl power?
Custom/Practice have taken on this question with great enthusiasm in their gender-reversed production of The Taming of the Shrew, the centrepiece of the inaugural Verve Festival at the Arts, celebrating cultural, ethnic and gender diversity in theatre. In this version of the story, the women hold all the power and it’s the men – trussed up in corsets and tottering around in women’s shoes – who must do as they’re told.
Doing away with the framing story of Christopher Sly, we’re thrown straight into the action. Famously bad-tempered Katherina (Kazeem Tosin Amore) is forced against his will into marrying Petruchio (Martina Laird), who’s more than willing to take on a challenge in exchange for her husband’s generous dowry. This frees his younger brother, the young, handsome Bianca (Tim Bowie), who has plenty of women after him but hasn’t been allowed to marry until Katherina does. As Bianca’s suitors, exchanging increasingly insincere air kisses, battle for his affections, Katherina’s new wife sets out to break his spirit and bring him to heel through a systematic programme of abuse and neglect.
Perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, this spirited, high-energy production directed by Rae McKen delivers plenty of laughs – not least, dare I say, in the moments when the actors throw Shakespeare’s script out the window and start ad libbing. Brigid Lohrey and Eugenia Caruso make a brilliant comedy duo as Bianca’s bumbling suitors Gremio and Hortensio – think Cinderella’s ugly sisters fighting over Prince Charming – while Kayla Miekle’s Tranio is the ultimate fairy godmother with attitude, and Lorenzo Martelli gets some of the biggest laughs as Petruchio’s long-suffering servant, Grumio.
Meanwhile, Martina Laird gives a captivating performance as Petruchio, at once seductive and tyrannical. Swaggering about the stage, she has a way of directing her asides straight at individual members of the audience that makes us feel somehow complicit in her torture of her husband. And while it’s hard not to laugh at Katherina’s desperate expression as Petruchio launches herself at him, all the time we’re uncomfortably aware that if it were a man behaving this way, we’d probably be appalled instead of amused.
This is theatre with a dual purpose – to make us laugh, and make us think – and on both fronts, it delivers. In a fast and frantically paced production, the cast never miss a beat, and genuinely seem to be having as much fun as the audience (occasionally more). And while the play’s central theme is always going to be challenging, gender swap or no gender swap, the awkward final scene is softened here by a Beyonce-inspired finale that, much like the rest of the show, is impossible to resist.
The Taming of the Shrew is at Above the Arts until 1st May.