The Taming of the Shrew, Barbican Theatre, stage review: ‘Gender reversal offers an ingenious twist’

Claire Price anchors the play with an ‘electric’ performance. Photograph: Ikin Yum / RSC

If a contemporary playwright proposed a comedy about the subjugation of one’s spouse through physical and psychological degradation, they would probably not get very far with the idea.

Yet Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has attracted audiences to this theme for nearly 430 years.

In Justin Audibert’s RSC production currently playing at the Barbican, the drama is given an ingenious twist as the genders of virtually all the characters are reversed.

Petruchia (Claire Price) dominates her initially ‘shrewish’ husband Kate, while the once docile Bianco becomes insolent in the loving care of his wife Lucentia.

This inside-out version of the play is undoubtedly more appealing to 21st century audiences than the original; what woman would not get an adrenalin rush when Kate bows to Petruchia with the assertion that it is men’s duty to “serve, love and obey” their wives?

A palpable surge of female empowerment ripples through the audience. At the same time, abuse is abuse.

Gender reversing the majority of characters gives the staging a modern appeal.
Photograph: Ikin Yum / RSC

By inverting genders, the misogyny debate that has long swirled around the play may be averted, but as a study in domination it remains an odd subject for mirth.

The production appears to be aiming for the empowerment of under-represented groups in general.

Curtis (Charlotte Arrowsmith) delivers her lines in very convincing sign language, and a delightful Biondella (Amy Trigg) charges round the stage in a wheelchair.

The drama is anchored, however, by the electric performance of Price, whose Petruchia is alive with cunning, intelligence and brute force – the very embodiment of coercive power.

In a nod to the musical, a couple of Italian drinking songs are thrown in, though they add little and seem out of place.

Overall this is a highly enjoyable show full of laughs and great dialogue. A dark undercurrent also leaves theatre-goers with lots to think about.

The Taming of the Shrew runs until 18 January at Barbican Theatre.