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Belmont Comes to Richmond. The Merchant of Venice

29 November 2016

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Step on Stage Productions at Queen Charlotte Theatre at RACC, Richmond, 20th November

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Throw away the shoehorn! The Merchant of Venice is usually over-analysed in an often misguided attempt to shoehorn its way of thinking into the 20th Century mindset. Although it is a comedy only in the literary sense of having a happy ending for (most) of its protagonists, it is at heart a cracking tale, well told.

If you wanted to see a production of The Merchant of Venice that was as simple as it was slick, and as entertaining as it was erudite, then you should kick yourself if you missed Step on Stage’s one-night performance last weekend.

mv-sos-3-masked-ladies

Masked Ball in Belmont:  Nerissa (Maddie Taylor), Portia (Fiona Lock) and Jessica (Tilly Hollywood)   Photograph by Step on Stage Productions

 

Incredibly, no actor was older than fifteen, and the youngest was six years’ old! A cut-back version that lasted under an hour, it had the essence of the story, well told by a troupe who clearly knew what they were doing, and did it brilliantly.  Moreover, it was done under “Fringe” conditions, minimal get-in time, no changes to existing technical set-up, instant get-out.

As soon as the play opened with a crisply choreographed dance to well-chosen period music, we could see that here we had a smooth running ensemble, no weak links, no divas.

Saoirse Frisby was fluent and natural as Antonio, the merchant who is willing to stand surety for his friend Bassanio’s investment in a voyage that will bring him the funds to wed his true-love Portia. Perhaps a little confusingly, we had two actors playing Bassanio, Katie Overd and Brune Delecour, both secure in the part.  In the later scenes of the play, Brune skilfully ran with the part while Katie competently took on the role of Tubal.

The merchants’ banker is Shylock, a complex character seething with resentment under a veneer of urbanity, and this was how Leo Buckley played him, confident, cool, businesslike: never far from his briefcase.   The abridgement had lost some opportunities to show a more sympathetic human side of Shylock, such as his underlying love for Jessica his daughter (mirror of her late mother) in spite of his preoccupation with the missing jewels when she elopes with Lorenzo.   Nevertheless, Leo did reveal Shylock’s innate humanity in the well-known “if you prick us, do we not bleed” speech, when we saw the suffering of the Jewish race peep out from the mannered banker.

Tilly Hollywood’s gentle Jessica and Scarlett Gladstone’s likeable Lorenzo were a made-for-each-other couple.

The yeoman stock of Belmont, convincingly played by Elise Gibson as Graziano, and Lizzie O’Reilly and Olivia Bedenko as “the two Salads”, were well complemented by servant classes in the form of Old Gobbo and his more upwardly mobile son, Launcelot Gobbo. Shakespeare allows some cruel humour from these two, when the son taunts the father who does not recognise him, on account of his “high gravel-blindness”.   Cillian Frisby and Leah Ash stuck the balance on this humour just right.

Portia is of course pivotal to the story and is an iconic acting role for a young actress. Fiona Lock excelled in this part.  Clearly an actress with insight and intelligence, she played the self assured Portia with a perfect mix of demureness and dynamism.   Skilfully supported by Maddie Taylor as her lady’s maid Nerissa, Fiona accurately displayed the playful, mischievous Portia when receiving her three suitors and the steely, determined and focussed Portia when rescuing the favoured Bassanio from the Duke’s court and the machinations of Shylock.

The two unsuccessful suitors were Nils Collins as the Duke of Morocco and Darcey Fryer-Bovill as the Duke of Aragon. They must choose between three caskets that may, or may not, hide Portia’s likeness.  Morocco chooses gold, Aragon chooses silver; both are thwarted, whereas Bassano’s later more modest choice of lead wins the girl.  Both pulled the utmost from these parts, confidently caricaturing them unashamedly. Nils’ Morocco was foppish and foolish, Darcey’s Aragon arrogant and vain: delicious milking of both parts.   Morocco acted as a stooge for Aragon’s subsequent appearance.  Diminutive but assured, Darcey, six years’ old, knew how to play the audience for laughs and milked the part until double cream ran.

The court of law was presided over by the Duke, in Alex Wigington’s capable hands a stern and regal figure. When Portia arrives disguised as an advocate for Antonio, the whole cast notched up the tension.  Fiona Lock’s dynamic acting style worked beautifully through the famous “the quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech, to the final conclusion that Shylock could have his pound of flesh on condition that he did not also take Antonio’s blood.  The court scene was totally gripping, the audience in silence, until Shylock was about to cut the flesh from Antonio’s chest, when there was a palpable gasp from everyone.

The return to Belmont was romantic, soft candlelight on the water. Lighting designer Meg Hird had set the scene throughout, across a simple set of grey cubes in the draped black-box acting space, but here one could feel the ambience.  The costumes (by director Emma-Louise Tinniswood and Sam Millard) were across a variety of periods, suggesting a continuing relevance of the play’s themes.   Redemption and love win out against greed and arrogance.  True loves are united: Portia and Bassanio, Jessica and Lorenzo, Nerissa and Gratiano.  There however remains, unresolved, the plight of the hapless Shylock, alone without his daughter, having lost face, fortune and the faith of his forefathers.

Emma-Louise Tinniswood and her Step on Stage company have created a remarkable production that was utterly delightful to watch. I wish all Shakespeare productions were so enjoyable.

 Thomas Forsythe

November 2016

 

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2 Comments
  1. celiabard permalink

    A very good review, thanks for this. Anne

  2. heathermoulson permalink

    Loved Shylock so much!

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