Review – ‘The Taming of a Shrew – Genderswapped!’ – Exeter Barnfield Theatre

20 – 21 March 8.00pm, Exeter Barnfield Theatre

Performed by: Keith Braid, Sasha van Diepen, Theresa Dunthorne, Meg Gray, Dominic James, Natalie Keffler, Richard Knox, Hannah Rosa Minshall, Sally Naylor, Grace Rider, Alex Rowntree, Tabi Scott, Loren Smith
Directed by: Dinah Marti

Having had no previous exposure to this infamously troubling Shakespeare play (barring an inevitable teenage viewing of ‘10 Things I Hate About You’), Dinah Marti’s ‘The Taming of a Shrew – Genderswapped!’ comes as a refreshing introduction to a comedy which is ordinarily mired in misogyny.

The genderswapping is simple but intelligent. The male characters are played as women and by women, and matriarch Baptista has two sons rather than two daughters, the youngest of which has a string of female suitors. Baptista’s eldest son is called Petruchio (‘Pete’), but is Petruchio in name only, and has all the characteristics and speeches ordinarily assigned to Kate. Conversely, when ‘Katherine’ makes her swaggering entrance later in the play, her role and lines are those usually commanded by Petruchio.

At first, it feels like the simpler option for Katherine and Pete would have been reassigning the genders of the original names – ‘Kit’, perhaps, and ‘Petruchia’, in the same way that ‘Lucentio’ becomes ‘Lucentia’ in this version – but the layering of meaning that the name swap creates instead forces the audience to consider the new positions the characters find themselves in. What does Shakespeare’s play look like if Petruchio is the one sold off to the first suitable match and forced into submission, while Kate is free to do exactly as she pleases and is celebrated for how well she’s broken in her husband?

For me, experiencing the play for the first time, the answer is: it looks like a comedy. And for a play that is clearly difficult to stage ‘straight’ and get those laughs, the immediate value in this production is that it’s funny, wholeheartedly and shamelessly so, because the real world does not look like the world that Marti has put onstage. In the real world, men are not bought or bartered for in arranged marriage contracts, purely to satisfy the needs and desires of women. And that distance between the world of the play and reality means that Marti’s version of ‘Shrew’ actually feels like a fun work of fiction instead of a hard to justify dramatization of real-world misogyny. It’s particularly freeing and cleansing to enjoy Shakespeare like this if, like me, you usually have a love-hate relationship with the bard’s portrayals of women.

Practically, there are a few places where the production could be slicker. A raised stage is great in a space which otherwise has difficult sightlines, but part of the limited playing area is wasted on bulky furniture and props; the actors often seem trapped in corners, and high heels stepping off the rostra leads to some wobbly exits and entrances. Confidence with the text varies, with some of the cast losing or fluffing lines, and there are moments where meaning isn’t communicated clearly. But what does shine through is how confident this cast are as an ensemble, and that camaraderie prompts some fantastically timed, irreverent ad-libs, as well as generally creating a relaxed, easy atmosphere in which the comedy takes centre stage. The play never feels dominated by any one actor, and it’s a mark of how well the cast works as a whole that the scenes without Katherine and Petruchio never feel like subplot.

There are some other interesting delights in the genderswapped staging. The lines are left unchanged except for pronouns and names, and there’s an ease with which the motivations and personality of each character translates to being played by another gender – without any of the actors ever falling into butch or girly stereotypes. The sheer range of newly female characters provides a great representation of the myriad ways to be, play, or act a woman. These women are coarse, lustful, funny, emotional, stupid, brilliant – and because there is never any suggestion that these are women pretending to be men, it’s a joyful demonstration that none of their qualities are inherently feminine or masculine. And because so many of the scenes are now female-only, it creates a cast of women undefined by men, who aren’t afforded power – or stage-time – purely because of their relationships with men.

At one point in the second half, I whispered ‘they just keep coming!’ – because there are a lot of characters in this play, and it’s unusual to see that played in full without any doubling. But although it seems a strange choice to start with, by the time the play reaches the final scene – in which Katherine demonstrates her complete mastery over the tamed Pete – the sheer number of women onstage becomes a powerful point in itself. Popular plays just don’t usually have that number of female characters, and female actors are outnumbered on professional stages. Marti’s production redresses the balance, if only for a couple of nights, and it’s an absolute joy to witness.