There have been plenty of plays where women have taken the roles usually played by male actors. Legends Sarah Siddons (in the 18th century) and Sarah Bernhardt (in the 19th century) are among the women who’ve played Hamlet. More recently Glenda Jackson was outstanding as King Lear, as was Tamsin Greig as Malvolio. Of course, Shakespeare’s original company of players were entirely men – playing all the female roles. And we now have an all-female company, the Smooth Faced Gentlemen, playing Shakespeare as the tables are turned. In an extraordinary trilogy, Dame Harriet Walter led an all-female cast through Julias Caesar, Henry IV and the Tempest.
We didn’t want to be coy about addressing the gender imbalance.Harriet Walter on the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy
But the current production of Taming of the Shrew playing at the RSC Stratford is something different. This is not women playing male roles and vice versa. This is the complete reversal of gender in society. The male parts are played by women as women. All the female parts are played by men as men. This is the world turned upside down. It is a matriarchy. Women have the power, wealth and status. Men are subservient and know their place. Interestingly, although the women carry the swords, have the money, take the decisions they are still ‘feminine’. Then men are still recognisably men – albeit one or two camp it up a bit.
Taming of the Shrew is not a pleasant play at any time. It legitimises controlling and coercive behaviour. It was only the interest created by this whole society gender reversal which attracted us to see it. Although not enough to travel to Stratford – we chose the live cinema view at the Harbour Lights, Southampton. The play itself was efficiently played and directed. Clair Price, playing Petruchia, and Joseph Arkley, playing Kate (slightly confusingly retaining the female name) were convincing in the lead roles, but the standout performance was Amy Trigg (Biondella), hurtling around the stage in her wheelchair as the slightly manic servant to Lucentia, delivering speeches with machine gun rapidity and dramatic pauses like the jam in the machine gun being fixed.
But it was the discussion after the play that was the most interesting. The director, Justin Audibert, said he wanted the play to be the start of a conversation. He got that right.
The four of us, two small-l liberal couples, quickly concluded that this production was profoundly more disturbing than previous, more traditional, versions that we had seen. The main conclusion we reached was that the current society is so patriarchal that even we find gaslighting of men by women more unusual, more disturbing than the other way round. The subservience of women is seen as more natural, more usual than the other way round – even to men AND women who have embraced equality personally and politically all their lives.
This is a truly powerful message and makes this play worth a look. Even if you, like me, dislike the concept of the play in either form.
The RSC, Stratford upon Avon until 7 September 2019