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A Pound of Flesh in This Sandwich: Merchant of Venice

15 November 2016

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 5th to 12th November

Review by Mary Stoakes

This play with its overt racism, casual mockery of the disabled Old Gobbo and the subservient position of women (and many men) affords uncomfortable reactions from 21st century audiences.  It must be remembered that these views were seen as the norm and were a fertile source of entertainment, and indeed comedy, in Shakespeare’s time.

Modern audiences and directors tend to interpret this play with attitudes formed by hindsight, but perhaps it should be seen as a commentary on its time rather than as a vehicle for us to express our 21st century sensibilities.  We are today appalled by the barbarities in Titus Andronicus but this doesn’t prevent it being staged.  Likewise the Merchant of Venice, one of the pillars of Eng. Lit., should also be performed despite its anti-Semitic base – even it only serves to remind us of how much more enlightened we in the West have become.

In the sixteenth century,  Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was hugely popular and is often credited with inspiring  his rival Shakespeare to write The Merchant of Venice in which the  prevailing attitudes  and social practices of  religion, both Jewish and Christian,  and the time-honoured  themes of jealousy, revenge, love,  loyalty, family and possession  are presented .

The production at the Mary Wallace Theatre in November was updated by director John Gilbert to a period just before World War One.   This time shift, whilst pointing up continued anti- Semitism throughout the centuries (and giving the opportunity for some lovely costumes), added little to the narrative.  As a sometime historian, I might add that women’s suffrage at this time was not an issue in Italy, although some very basic feminist rights had been debated since Shakespeare’s day.  However the settings themselves were delightful; with large gilt frames surrounding some of the action in Belmont and a wonderful representation of Venice itself in the scenic painting by Junis Olmscheid.   The aforementioned costumes, hair styling and makeup were excellent.

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Photograph by John Gilbert

Whilst applauding the wish to bring something new to well-known and familiar characters, this traditionalist feels that this should be rooted, at least remotely, in the text.   In this production there seemed to be little justification for some of the characterisation – Lorenzo a drunk who was allowed to mangle On such a night (?); the Prince of Aragon, a proud  early 20th  century Spanish Grandee,  depicted  as a cockney vulgarian (?); melancholic, cynical and world-weary Antonio  as a tetchy and irritable man reduced to a trembling wreck in the trial scene (? ) (albeit with some  excellent physical acting from Simon Bartlett).

This production was something of a ‘sandwich’ with a substantial, meaty and satisfying filling (the trial scene) between two slightly stodgy outer layers!  The casket scenes were lacking in tension and, even though the outcome is familiar to most people, the atmosphere of suspense, mystery and indeed comedy which the action should generate was missing.    Some commentators have described these first scenes as a ‘rom com’ but there was little chemistry between the various pairs of lovers who appeared to be only perfunctorily interested in one another.  Perhaps brighter stage lighting could have emphasised the lighter nature of some of the action and placed it more securely in sunny Italy. That said, the night-time elopement scene was appropriately lit and directed with Jessica (Jacinta Collins) leaping from the balcony into a human ‘gondola’ below.

Shylock is both the villain and the hero of this play: a vengeful man demanding  the literal and bloody fulfillment of a bargain and then there is the human being who suffers the loss of his daughter, his property, the ring which he has given his late wife and, most importantly to him, the slights against his religion.

A mesmerising and utterly believable performance from Craig Cameron-Fisher as Shylock dominated the action and engaged both his fellow actors and the audience alike.   All the emotions, hatred, greed, sentimentality, paternal love, pride, the desire for revenge and finally humiliation were vividly and credibly brought to life.

John Mortley as Launcelot Gobbo was another breath of fresh air in a rather slow first act.   Making Shakespeare’s  ‘comedy’ episodes amusing for modern audiences  is not easy but John’s quick-fire delivery of this ‘banter’, together with the performance  of Dave King as his bewildered father, was spot on.

After the interval we returned to a different production – gone was the stolidity of the first acts, the acting and the direction were tauter and more intense.  All the actors, especially Bassanio (Scott Tilley), added a new and exciting dimension to their performances and at last appeared fully committed to the drama.

Portia (Dionne King), after an efficient but rather low key performance in the first act, blossomed when transformed into the lawyer Balthasar from Padua and made telling use of Shakespeare’s words especially in her delivery of The quality of Mercy speech.  It is a challenge for any actor to bring something different and more meaningful to these famous lines but Dionne succeeded.   Again, all Shylock’ s motives, revenge, religious fanaticism, pride and lack of magnanimity, were magnificently  and variously  articulated by Craig Cameron- Fisher, his emotions following the ebb and flow of the trial and even still somehow engaging our sympathy at its conclusion,  when finally humiliated in court.

With the return to Belmont, the pace again dropped and the sense of happiness, peace and completion as expressed in the text was missing. Much of the lyrical verse was poorly delivered, adding nothing to the creation of atmosphere.  The business of Portia’s and her maid’s rings and Jessica’s inheritance was sorted with only Nerissa (Madeleine Gordon –  an excellent portrayal of Balthasar’s  clerk –  and Gratiano – a lively performance from Tom Shore) showing any sense of true involvement or excitement .

This was an interesting interpretation of what is now one of Shakespeare’s most controversial ‘comedies’,  delightful to look at  and compelling in parts with one exceptional performance, but somewhat uneven in characterisation and  interpretation.

 Mary Stoakes

November 2016

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