The Taming of the Shrew by the RSC at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, March- November 2003.

Chris Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Chris. "Review of The Taming of the Shrew." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 (January, 2004): 16.1-7 <URL:>.

Directed by Gregory Doran. Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Lighting designed by Tim Mitchell. Music by Paul Englishby. With Ian Gelder as Baptista Minola, Alexandra Gilbreath as Katherine, Eve Myles as Bianca, Jasper Britton as Petruchio, Nicholas Tennant as Grumio, Paul Chahidi as Hortensio, Christopher Godwin as Gremio, Daniel Hawksford as Lucentio, Rory Kinnear as Tranio, Simon Trindler as Biondello, John Lightbody as Curtis, Bill Nash as Nathaniel, Nathan Rimell as Joseph, Tom Anderson as Nicholas / A Haberdasher, Christopher Harvey as Philip / A Tailor, Oliver Maltman as Peter, David Peart as Adam / Vincentio, Keith Osborn as Rafe / Pedant, Esther Ruth Elliot as Widow / Sugarsop, Beth Vyse as a Maid.

  1. This was a thoroughly thought-through production, which imagined original ways of performing Shrew's three main players: Petruchio, Katherine and Bianca. Additionally, it made sense of every part and displayed excellent ensemble performances, so that Tranio, Biondello, the Widow and the servants in Petruchio's house were all (to varying degrees) more than devices, more than comic turns (though many were that too). There were superb interpretations by Jasper Britton, Alexandra Gilbreath and Eve Myles as Petruchio, Katherine and Bianca, as well as excellent performances by the cast as a whole. All the acting was characterised by strong conceptions of character and situation, as well as by a real depth of persuasive performance detail. It was a pleasure to see every aspect of theatre set, costume, movement, interpretation of lines and character working so well together to reveal new possibilities in the text.

  2. To start with the text: the induction scene was cut entirely, so that the audience was plunged straight into the cut and thrust of the business of marriage in the Minola household, without any cushioning reference to the theatre as a place of transformation and illusion. Elsewhere there was much ingenious pointing of the text (for example, in Tranio's halting and anxiety-inducing impersonation of his master Lucentio's class dialect) and some ad libbing in ensemble scenes (the Widow makes a pointed gesture and inaudible aside at Katherine's wedding as they await Petruchio, suggesting a later motivation for Katherine's worsting of her in the final scene). More weightily, the production picked up the text's hurried reference to Petruchio's father's death usually treated as a mere plot enabler and created from it a subtly suggested motivation for Petruchio's behaviour to Katherine. This Petruchio felt the loss and it seemed to precipitate a desperate need for a clear masculine identity which his father had previously guaranteed. Though few lines in the text refer to Petruchio's father, the production found ways of sustaining the reference through the set design and through Petruchio's acting out of his anxieties. Thus, Petruchio's grief-stricken announcement of his father's death, 'Antonio my father is deceased' (I.2), was followed by a moment of silence and paralysis, as if he could not, for a moment, face the trauma of having to inhabit the identity of the patriarchal male (the ghost of his father?) who had undertaken to tame Katherine. Similarly, when Petruchio arrived with Katherine at his home on their wedding night and denied her all comforts food, warmth, companionship he was left on stage after her desolate departure to bed, equally desolate, taking down and clutching the prominent portrait of his father. It was an oddly moving and highly interpretable moment: did his emotion stem from his sense that he was merely performing rather than possessing patriarchal power, that he was the shadow of his father, or was he seeking the dead father's approval by taking actions which redoubled his own loneliness as he sent away the one companion who might replace the intimacy felt with his dead parent?

  3. The set suggestively supported related ideas of the complexities of identity in this society. The stage sported some twenty-nine doors some at ground level, others opening off two suspended galleries, yet others opening out of the walls of the proscenium arch or half-concealing the musicians in their gallery in the wings. This multiplicity of doors contrasted interestingly with the single door which dominated the RSC's paired production of The Tamer Tamed: here, there was no simple contrast between outside and inside, between public and private (especially as nearly all the doors stood alone, entrances and exits through nothing). As one door shut behind a character, another opened, but then shut in its turn. Identity had many entrances or exits. Thus, in the opening scene Katherine made loud reference to Ibsen's A Doll's House as she repeatedly slammed the door of her father's house but there was nowhere to run to offstage: her protests at her treatment by father, by Bianca and by Bianca's suitors simply seemed to reinforce their conviction that their categorisation of her as a shrew was an inescapably true and natural description.

  4. Bianca is usually portrayed as using the role of good daughter for her own ends, and this production was no exception. What was new was that she displayed a real distaste for all her suitors: her role meant she had to play to, and with, them, but she showed no personal interest at all. When Lucentio kissed her hand as he pushed her on a swing, she was disgusted. The only moment at which she showed real emotion was when she was dismissed by her father after disobeying her husband in the last scene. Perhaps her loss here echoed that of Petruchio, bringing the play back at its end to the disturbing yet intimate power of fathers for both men and women.

  5. The twenty-nine doors, variously employed as the doors of the Minola Household, the entrance to Gremio's house, and church doors, formed the set for the majority of the play. The one scene change was reserved for the moment when Petruchio and Katherine reached his house on their wedding night. The abstract and multiple doors were here replaced by a single door into Petruchio's house from the outside world, and by a staircase up to one of the suspended galleries. This was, perhaps, a chance for Katherine (and Petruchio?) to achieve an actual identity in a substantial household space. As the newlyweds came in from a snow-storm, the overall effect recalled the house at Wuthering Heights in one of its better phases. The solid comforts of this house were absolutely apparent a host of willing and competent servants, a roaring fire, food at command - but Petruchio conjured all comfort out of existence, not allowing Katherine to take up the role of wife to which she seemed already well-disposed by this stage of the production.

  6. In fact, this Katherine was won over by Petruchio at a very early stage. Though she was a furious figure at the opening of the play, driving all before her, dressed as if she were a slovenly servant and slamming every possible door, Petruchio did much to persuade her that he was the man for her at their first meeting, when she laughed her head off at his vulgar joke about tongues and tails - though she struck him afterwards (II.1). She came to the wedding in a conventional (if clearly constraining) wedding dress, ready to be admitted into conventional womanhood. But Petruchio did not oblige her, the production cumulatively suggesting that it was as much, or more, his need to achieve an identity as her resistance that drove him to his further acts of 'taming'. Alexandra Gilbreath's performance of Katherine was an extraordinary one: she switched her appearance from that of a desperate, habitually furious middle aged woman to that of a flattered (if suspicious) young beauty as Petruchio wooed her (at first) with Petrarchan descriptions of her charms. Her re-transformation into a desperate and hungry woman delivered into the power of an evident lunatic at his house was a moving reversal. However, there was a turning point in Petruchio's house: in this production she got to keep the cap (IV.3). Petruchio, having declared it unfit for her, turned the right red cap inside out so that the brown lining was displayed. Katherine snatched the bonnet from him, clutching at whatever comfort she could, and wore it inside out for the rest of the play.

  7. The suggestion of the couple's ability henceforth to turn roles inside out was potently signalled by this idiosyncratic yet strangely fetching bonnet. As Petruchio turned sun into moon, old man into young maid, Katherine seemed to re-accept him as she gave up on the dullness of common sense and entered into the peculiar game he played with the world. By the time it came to the final wager, she and he seemed to be working like a slick team of con-artists, imitating a conventional relationship for their own ends. The performance of Katherine's submission speech was perfect - but it was clearly a performance. Having won their wager, the couple ridiculed the connections between gender hierarchy and property by jointly pouring the contents of the money bags they had won over the floor in front of the assembled households. If by this stage Petruchio had attained an identity in which he could live, it was not like that of the play's respectable fathers, but rather a mad and revealing parody.

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