An era of trigger warnings, which alert consumers to content that may chafe with personal experience or feelings, has created two lose-win duos in the Shakespearean canon. Othello plausibly seems to be a play about racism, while The Merchant of Venice risks, without very careful direction, appearing racist. Similarly, Measure for Measure can be staged to critique sexism, while The Taming of the Shrew is inevitably criticised as sexist.
Those two dramas of gender tension are re-explored for the era of #metoo in Royal Shakespeare Company revivals that are stopping over at the Barbican in London between their Stratford-on-Avon premieres and UK tours next year.
RSC artistic director Gregory Doran’s new version of Measure for Measure (until January 16) moves the play to Vienna in 1900, which feels a good fit as Sigmund Freud would have found fascinating case studies in its main male characters: Angelo, the substitute ruler, and the Duke who abdicated suddenly but comes back in the guise of a friar to spy on his successor. Eroticism and extinction—constant, and overlapping, Freudian concerns—are also central to a play in which Isabella, a novice nun, is offered a reprieve for her death-sentenced brother if she surrenders her virginity to Angelo.
This heightened resonance energises Doran’s staging. When Isabella warns Angelo that raping her will ruin his reputation, his sneering “Who will believe thee?” offers one of those moments of shock in Shakespeare when his lines, four centuries old, resonate today.
A post-Weinstein reading reduces the weight that Shakespeare gives to Isabella’s virginity as a condition of faith, perhaps reflecting what an increasing number of scholars believe to have been his status as a closet Catholic in recently Protestant England. The horror of Lucy Phelps’s strong, bright Isabella at the sexual bargain feels less religious than feminist: a complex intellectual position for a nun now, still more at the time the production is set.
This interpretation, though, makes the sexual politics very timely, as do the politics of power. Although the dramatist had to be nuanced in the first play to negotiate the sensitivities of the Jacobean rather than Elizabethan court, he created, in the Duke and Angelo, survivingly recognisable archetypes of liberal and authoritarian leaders, both of whom deceive the people. Measure for Measure has become very popular in Russia during the Putin decades, perhaps because his manœuvres around the Russian constitution make him a rare actual example of a leader who, Duke-like, gives up power, then reclaims it. Although Sandy Grierson, as Angelo, looks somewhat Putinesque, Doran’s production offers more broadly applicable portraits of sinister disciplinarians and contradictory liberals. The combination of charm, bullshit and mystery in Anthony Byrne’s Duke does not match any specific politician, yet could be many.
But, despite its long topicalities, Measure for Measure is in other ways a problem play, especially in tone. Broad comedy—involving Elbow, an even more tedious Shakespearean comedy cop than Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing—alternates with not only the most brutal Shakespearean bed trick (one virgin swapped in the dark for another) but also a vicious head trick, in which one severed head impersonates another.
Doran and his visual collaborators (Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is lit by Simon Spencer) deal with this by framing even the lightest moments sombrely. Looking influenced by the line about Vienna’s ruler being a “Duke of dark corners”, they create a court of shadows and mirrors, which sometimes become two-way, exposing surveillance and voyeurism. Continuing the signature of Doran’s RSC tenure, the verse is both clearly comprehended by the actors and comprehensible to the audience.
Whereas enlightenment about male-female relations has further empowered Measure for Measure, it has pretty much stymied The Taming of the Shrew (until January 18), which can now be performed only if some solution is found to a denouement in which laddish Petruchio and his mates hold a contest to find out who has the most submissive wife, which Katherine wins by symbolically placing her hand under her hubby’s foot.
A dystopian approach—an Elizabethan anticipation of The Handmaid’s Tale—might crack the final scene, but wrecks the rest of the text. Most recent directors and actors have dealt with this moment by suggesting that either Petruchio or Katherine intends the climactic metaphor of being downtrodden as a bitterly ironic commentary on the gender expectations of the society around them.
Going far beyond such verbal inverted commas, Justin Audibert’s production radically inverts the casting. It is now not Petruchio who sets out to marry by any means the toxic spinster Katherine, but Petruchia, played with enjoyable ladette extravagance by Claire Price. The target she aims to seduce and subdue is a notorious Paduan bachelor, played by Joseph Arkley, although he retains the name Katherine and nick-name Kate.
This peculiar baptism is a metrical necessity. The fashion for gender-swap casting is made for Shakespeare’s Mediterranean plays, where transition can be achieved with a change of final vowel: Petruchio’s rival suitors Hortensio and Lucio here compete with Petruchia as Hortensia and Lucia. Similarly, “he”/“she” and “his”/“hers” can be rotated without violence to the syllabic rhythm. But, while Kate might be masculinised to “Cato” in a prose drama, here it would not only break the rhythmic discipline, but kill the many rhymes with “mate”. So the production must have a boy called Katherine.
Audibert’s ingenious implication is that Signora Baptista so wanted daughters that she named and raised her sons as female, and this, helped by Arkley wearing his hair long, seems plausible enough. Freud helps this Shrew almost as much as he does the Measure.
Against my fears, the casting works as an insight rather than a gimmick. The hooped skirts are so long and heavy that the women seem to glide like Daleks, bringing laughs, but the humour turns progressively cruel and dark. A comic dystopia in which men are under women’s whim and whip exposes the misogynistic horror of The Taming of the Shrew we used to see. A script that had become unplayable is saved. The RSC is on powerful form.