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It’s a Woman’s World

Muddy has a sneaky behind-the-scenes look at some of the stunning costumes made in Stratford-upon-Avon for the RSC's new gender-switched revival, The Taming-of-The Shrew.

In the light of #metoo, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is seen by many as a problematic play. As director Justin Audibert points out “the title itself suggests that a woman is a ‘shrew’ and needs ‘taming’.” Inspired by The Power by Naomi Alderman, he has tackled this period revival head on by reversing almost the entire cast so that women will play the roles written as men and vice versa.

Joseph Arkley is playing Katherine, and Claire Price as Petruchia Production photos by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

The setting is a re-imagined Elizabethan England in 1590, run entirely by women, with a strong, vibrant Mediterranean vibe. In a humorous twist male virginity is prized above anything else, and men are not supposed to make eye contact. If you saw Audibert’s “wickedly funny” The Jew of Malta you know you’re in for a smart, provocative and highly amusing trip to the theatre.

Sophie Stanton as Gremia, Bianco’s elderly suitor

Exquisite, detailed and sumptuous Elizabethan costumes have been designed by London-based Hannah Clark and made in the RSC’s temporary Costume Workshop in Arden Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. Demolition work began this month on the £8.7m restoration and rebuilding of the RSC’s permanent Costume Workshop, located on Waterside, across from the theatres, where costumes have been created since the 1950’s. Hannah trained in theatre design at Nottingham Trent University and Central School of Speech and Drama. Previously design credits include the RSC’s Queen Anne in 2015, Shakespeare’s Globe, 4.48 Psychosis (Royal Opera House), Cosi Fan Tutte (Northern Ireland Opera) and Blink (Soho Theatre).

The director says: “The costumes will certainly give a sense of the 1590 period. The costumes worn by the female actors will be beautiful, imposing, expensive and involve lots of material. They will dominate the space. The costumes the male actors wear will be much more delicate even subtle.”

Claire Price as Petruchia

Justin explains how Hannah’s costumes reflect this Elizabethan ‘matriarchy’: “The role of Petruchio, which we have renamed Petruchia, is being played by Claire Price as a woman in a woman’s costume but with the same character motivations and social status as Petruchio in any other production.”

You can see the exquisite detail that’s gone into in Katherine’s costume as worn by Joseph Arkley

He continues: “Likewise Katherine is being played by a male actor, Joseph Arkley, and he’s playing it as a man, and will be wearing a man’s costume, but will have the same social restrictions that a woman in 1590s England would have had. The actors are playing their own gender but we have flipped which gender holds power.”

Joseph Arkley as Katherine

Katherine’s sister Bianco, played by James Cooney is wooed by three female suitors, including Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia, seen here below.

L-R: Emily Johnstone (Lucentia) and James Cooney (Bianco)

A close-up of Bianco’s costume in the RSC’s temporary Costume Workshop, and one worn by Aaron Thiara (Servant of Petruchia).

This approach has inevitably seen a radical shift behind-the-scenes in the rehearsal room dynamic. Justin says: “It’s not that there aren’t brilliant roles in Shakespeare for women, but you still end up in a room that’s 60 – 70% male. I wanted to see what it would feel like when you flip that on its head, where the male voice is not the dominant one. I say this knowing that I’m the director, and I’m a man and I wield considerable power in that role, but still the weight of the room feels different, in a brilliant and creative way.”

The company and a closer look at the costume worn by Aaron Thiara, (Servant of Petruchia), below.

Next summer the RSC’s newly refurbished world-class Costume Workshop is set to reopen, creating new training and apprenticeship opportunities. Visitors will be able to experience the biggest in-house costume-making department of any British theatre in its restored two-storey Grade II listed home through tours and interactive experiences. The department employs 30 people, costume construction, armour-making, millinery, dyeing and printing.

Head of Costume Alistair McArthur said: “It is with a real sense of nostalgia that we watched work begin. We have mixed feelings as we’ve had some great times in there and produced some amazing costumes, but it wasn’t the easiest place to work in with the leaking roof and steep stairs. We’re all really excited about the future building and moving back into our new and improved home.”

The Taming of the Shrew runs in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until Aug 31. Tickets here. For further information on the transformation of the costume workshop check out The Stitch In Time campaign.

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