Review: Taming Who? at Arcola Theatre ★★★½

Review: Taming Who? at Arcola Theatre ★★★½

Taming Who?, Intermission Youth Theatre’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, daringly deconstructs its controversial predecessor to captivate a contemporary audience.

★★★1/2 Taming Who? | Arcola Theatre | 30 November – 14 December 2023

Adapted by IY’s Artistic Director Darren Raymond and directed by Stevie Basaula, Taming Who? tells the modern-day tale of Petruchio, a student loving life in London. When he receives a phone call from his Mum, instructing him to urgently return home to Nigeria now that his father has died, he frantically responds, ‘My life is here in England!’ Failing to convince his Mum to let him stay, he spits out a lie. ‘Mum, I’m married!’ To Petruchio’s dismay, she immediately books a flight to London to meet this so-called ‘wife’. He now has three days to find one.

Led by an energetic ensemble cast – which features Megan Samuel, Ophelia J Wisdom, Donnavan Yates, Tane Armachie Siah, Tré Medley, Sara Mokonen, Kai Jerdioui, Sian Leigh-Moore, Morenike Onajobi, Keon Martial-Phillip, and Chadrack Mbuini – Taming Who? enthusiastically envelops us into this world of desperation, deception, and disguise with a seamless combination of slang, poetry, and rap. As one ensemble player remarks, ‘This man will win her with words alone.’ The use of language makes this story relatable, relevant, and resonant, and the show’s skillful wordplay certainly wins us over.

A highlight is the rather riotous rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’. Crooned by the delightful Kai Jerdioui – who plays Lucentio disguised as an Italian man – his embellished accent, sing-songy glee, and curlicue, hastily hand-drawn moustache has the audience in hysterics. In terms of sparking some boisterous belly laughs, the formidable Morenike Onajobi, who plays Petruchio’s Mum, acts as the production’s backbone as she bookends it. A powerhouse performer, Onajobi owns the stage, mastering the role of fierce matriarch whilst charming us into constant chuckling. We particularly loved her demanding of a pink-haired character, ‘Who are you talking to, you crayon?!’ – as did the whole audience, which burst out laughing. Taming Who? is hilarious, filled with moments that have the crowd cackling.

Despite some valiant efforts however, Taming Who? fails to fully escape the ugly sexism and heteronormativity at the heart of its source material. At times, it even ends up reinforcing these attitudes where it seemingly seeks to disrupt them. The play attempts to move away from the sexist core of Shakespeare’s version, reframing Petruchio’s manipulation and abuse of Katherine as a ploy to convince his mother he’s married, so she’ll let him stay in London. However, he still lies to Kate, withholds food and sleep from her, and consistently treats her as a means to an end, rather than a whole person. While a few lines at the play’s end indicate a change in Petruchio’s heart, he still fails to apologise or take full responsibility for the harm he’s done to Kate. As a result, the celebrations that close the play feel unearned. 

More broadly, the play works to give its women characters more lines and time on stage, as well as a more explicit look at their choices to further the plot. However, it still often falls into framing them, especially Katherine’s sister Bianca, only in terms of their romantic relationships to the play’s men. These relationships are presented as exclusively straight, with no possibility of any kind of queer attraction, and are the defining topic of the womens’ conversations with both the play’s men and each other. For instance, this adaptation gives Bianca much more time with the play’s other women, and much more agency in choosing a partner than Shakespeare’s version. However, it still defines her almost entirely in terms of these potential romantic relationships, telling us in the audience little about her outside of her romantically desirable status. 

While the play clearly works to disrupt the brutal sexism of Shakespeare’s text, it remains trapped by it. In doing so, it sometimes hampers the believability of its women characters as fully-rounded people despite the excellent performances of their actors, and at times simply celebrates a framework of relationships which perhaps deserves to be explored with more complexity.

These flaws aside, Taming Who? showcases the success of Intermission Youth Theatre’s mission. Artistic Director Darren Raymond established the company in 2008, alongside co-founders Rob and Janine Gillion. Over its 15 years, Intermission Youth has helped over 150 disadvantaged and underserved young people to grow their confidence, enter the performing arts sector, apply to universities, and start their own businesses through its community support. Their program now features a community arm which goes into underserved schools and communities to inspire and promote young talent in an open, non-judgemental space. The organisation is currently seeking a new, permanent home for its work, after circumstances made its previous building unusable. As Morenike Onajobi, the Assistant Director of Taming Who?, said in the show’s Q&A talkback, “With freedom comes creativity.” Taming Who? showcases the powerful potential of this creativity in young people’s lives, and demonstrates how very much this company deserves the permanent home it’s fighting for.

Taming Who? continues at the Arcola Theatre until 14 December 2023.