A Merchant of Venice
The Playground Theatre
Reviewed – 15th November 2021
“Alexander’s interpretation has only served to shine a brighter light on the problems of this story, resolving none of them”
At its best, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is wildly problematic. But, being so iconic, so confounding and complex, we just can’t simply do away with it. As with so much of Shakespeare, the prose has become idiomatic, and speeches such as Shylock’s heart-crushing, “If you prick us, do we not bleed” could no more be discarded than Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” or Mercucio’s “A curse on both your houses.” But! Be all that as it may, the play remains problematic.
‘Shakespeare in Italy’’s A Merchant in Venice promises a modern take on the old script, cutting the cast and focusing on only six characters and their relationships with one and other, wrestling with “Justice and Mercy, Marriage and Money, Race and Class” and “the tortured nature of love.” A modern take is exactly what this play needs, magnifying the complexities and drawing them out, and throwing away anything that no longer resonates with a contemporary audience. Unfortunately, adaptor and director Bill Alexander has completely wasted this opportunity.
The main thrust of the story is that a rich Venetian, Antonio (John McAndrew), guarantors a loan for his friend Bassanio (Alexander Knox) with moneylender Shylock (Peter Tate), affectionately termed “The Jew” for most of the play. Antonio being his longstanding enemy, Shylock only agrees to the loan on the term that should Antonio fail to repay the loan by its due date, Shylock should be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When terrible misfortune causes Antonio to lose all his money, Shylock comes knocking.
With the loss of smaller parts, the remaining characters must carry their burden too. Portia (Lena Robin), for example is left to fend alone in her introductory speech, where once her handmaiden Nerissa would have made it a conversation. Rather than a witty back-and-forth regarding her ridiculous suitors, we’re left with a long, glib ramble, superficially improved by the use of a mobile phone prop in a poor attempt to modernise.
The script has been cut, and in some places, I believe actually rewritten. If you’re going to edit Shakespeare, do so boldly. Instead, the general semi-opacity of Shakespearian English remains, but much of the poeticism is lost. This might also be blamed on the delivery though, so I can’t put it all on the edit. I wasn’t sitting with a script on my lap, so I don’t know for certain what was cut and what wasn’t, only that, perhaps in an attempt to lighten the play’s hefty discussion of endemic racism, the plot has been simplified to goodies and baddies, the Venetians being the goodies, and “The Jew” the baddie. Which ironically makes for a far less modern discussion than is allowed in the unabridged version.
I did briefly wonder whether perhaps I was simply too sensitive to the play’s anti-Semitism, given that Shakespeare was around a pretty long time ago. But, seeing the CLF Art Café’s 2019 production I recall vividly that, despite the confusingly ‘happy’ ending (resolved only by lopping it off and ending with the scene prior), they had done well to flesh out the nuances of the tensions between Antonio and Shylock, highlighting Shylock’s humanity, and the causes of his great bitterness. So, it is absolutely possible to leave this play without feeling somehow complicit.
In a way, the production’s lacklustre design- mostly black costumes and some fold-out chairs- and thoughtless stage set-up- a thrust stage, forcing the performers to show their back to much of the audience when giving their boldest speeches- simplifies things. You’re not missing anything.
The only positive note is that Alex Wilson’s Gratiano, is quite wonderful. His character is rich and complicated, playing the bully and obsequious friend to a tee, despite having very little to work with from the rest of the cast.
Obviously, a lot of people worked hard on this production, and I don’t suggest anyone had deviant or malicious intentions. But it is very much the case that Alexander’s interpretation has only served to shine a brighter light on the problems of this story, resolving none of them. To a large extent it’s a poisoned chalice to begin with. Best leave it alone and pick a less controversial number, like Othello.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Guy Bell
A Merchant of Venice
The Playground Theatre until 4th December
Also reviewed at this venue this year: