Tron Theatre, Dir. Michael Fentiman, 20-30/03/19
As I went to turn my phone off, aware that the performance would start any second, someone in the crowd appeared to be shouting obnoxiously, starting an argument with a woman in a Tron Theatre uniform. I sat there bewildered as to why the steward sitting next to me was not rushing to remove him, not realising this was a part of the act until he was dragged onto the stage and told that his name from now on was Kate, that he would do what the female actresses told him, and no, this was not a dream.
So began Jo Clifford’s version of one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, in which she reimagines Katherine as a male ‘shrew’ married off to Petrochio, who attempts to ‘reform’ his petulant behaviour through harassment, manipulation, and violence, at one point referring to him as a dog who must learn to obey his mistress. Indeed, a standard retelling with only the gendered pronouns changed would be enough to drive home the play’s message about the cruelty of the patriarchy. Yet Clifford’s play goes further: centre-stage is literally transformed into a ‘wooden O’, which takes on different meanings throughout the play, from a circus ring to highlight the performativity and objectivity of femininity, to a boxing ring as Kate is overpowered throughout her unwanted courtship by Petruchio. Moreover, Tranio and Lucentio are represented as a lesbian couple attempting to woo Petruchio’s gender-fluid sibling Bianca, three roles played to perfection by Alexandra Riley, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and François Pandolfo respectively, particularly in their musical numbers. Sadly, however, it seemed like this subplot could have been explored further and fell by the wayside, perhaps due to the way that it also doubled as a complex framing device for the play’s main plot.
Overall, while the play’s ambitious staging definitely required a few structural adjustments to iron out certain problems, where it really succeeded was in the way it experimented with the gender politics of Shakespeare’s problematic play with darkly cynical humour. Its frightening climax shows all the female characters standing over Katherine, a character who starts off insulting a member of the Tron theatre and is ‘tamed’ into a more servile shadow. Shakespeare’s version was originally a comedy at Kate’s expense; Clifford presents it as a tragedy that women still endure.