“Why, there be good women in the world”
At the heart of Custom/Practice’s Verve festival – exploring shifting relations between minority groups and the theatre – is this gender-flipped production of The Taming of the Shrew. Indubitably one of the more challenging of Shakespeare’s plays, contemporary companies thus have to work a little harder to make it ‘work’ for them – Propeller played up the Christopher Sly framing device to confront notions of masculinity and power to great effect but here, director Rae Mcken excises it to plunge us straight into a world where women are ruling the roost.
For pretty much every character save Grumio is being played by someone of the opposite sex as someone of the opposite sex but further blurring the boundaries, costumes suggest the original gender. So Martina Laird’s Petruchio arrives looking for a husband by striding onto the stage somewhere between matador and pirate in resplendent gold satin and Tim Bowie’s Bianca bristles under his mother’s edicts whilst wearing make-up, heels and a corset over his tapered joggers. It’s an inventive and challenging take that forces constant questioning about gender roles and society’s role in enforcing them.
Crucially though, it’s also entertaining, highly so at times. Laird swaggers magnificently as a Caribbean-accented Petruchio, within minutes of meeting Kazeem Tosin Amore’s Katherina she’s riding him like a horse and taking a bite of his posterior, yet always displaying a finely nuanced mastery of the verse as the tempestuous relationship she instigates with the lover she seizes eventually mellows her, even if just a little. Amore’s Kate makes a good case for changing, full of an emerging upright dignity throughout the play, though he could possibly be a little wilder earlier on.
There’s huge amounts of fun with the company clearly relishing the opportunities afforded here. Brigid Lohrey’s physical work as Gremio and Eugenia Caruso’s brilliantly accented Hortensio are both comic masterclasses and Kayla Meikle and Tracy Green both stand out with their assured handling of the language, dovetailing it perfectly with their contemporary inflections to make it sound fresh as a daisy. Mcken keeps a lightness of touch that lets many a comic touch flourish, such as the many variations on air kissing, and Anna Driftmeier’s louche lounge design marks one of the more effective transfigurations of space in this studio.
At a time when surveys show that apparently ‘half of Brits don’t want female Hamlets’, the need for productions like these becomes more and more important. People are naturally entitled to their own opinions but that doesn’t mean that deep-seated old-fashioned (for which, read racist and sexist) attitudes shouldn’t be challenged. How often do we see an ensemble weighted 7:3 women to men, especially in a play that isn’t ostensibly female-centric? How often do we see women get to tackle leading roles of sexual precocity without being punished for it? How often do we get to see women just getting to play straight-up comic roles? Not often enough is the answer in case there was any doubt, and so we should be glad for companies such as Custom/Practice and the Reversed Shakespeare Company for tackling such issues and hopefully leading where others will follow (I’m looking hard at you, Kenneth Branagh Company).