Notwithstanding its running gags at the expense of academics’ dry theories, Jo Clifford’s guileful reworking of The Taming of the Shrew is an exercise in semiotic playfulness. A stool can be something you sit on, or something you excrete; the sun is the moon; and Katherine and Bianca are two boys in a world where women are in charge.
Staged with dynamism by Michael Fentiman, Clifford’s adaptation doesn’t merely cast women in the male roles, but reshapes Shakespeare’s play so that the male characters are female and the female characters are male. Names remain unchanged. It is a wry and rich proposition, expanding the binaries and dualities of the drama. No longer farcical comedy of interchangeable identity and mistruths, it gently pokes at the very conditionality of meaning, of signs, and of social and gender constructs.
Clifford’s production is rich in ideas, and smartly staged. Madeleine Girling’s design of coppers and gold, and Joseff Fletcher’s lighting, with soft revealing fades that illuminate the darkness, are particularly gorgeous. There are several arrestingly beautiful images. Performed by an archly game ensemble, in Clifford’s rendering these characters attain new hues and conflicts, with Scarlett Brookes’s shrewd Petruchio reaching complexities that feel new. The always remarkable Alexandria Riley as Tranio makes virtuosity look effortless. Hannah Jarrett-Scott is a swaggering, subtly sultry Lucentio with several musical interludes, underscoring many of the production’s most emotional moments.
While the staging and performances have an air of knowing playfulness, it remains a story with a fairly dodgy premise. The gender inversion offers thematic scope, but its contemporary meta-theatrical bells and whistles also locate it in a relative present. Despite its central conceit, it is a situation where one violent power structure is merely supplanted by another. It works best as a revenge fantasy, and while it is framed as a fantasy, the conclusion contains an unexpected note of earnestness. Here, I longed for a little more glee. I wanted the house burned down; the original dismantled.