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A Merchant of Venice

A Merchant of Venice


Playground Theatre

A Merchant of Venice

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:
Ida Rubinstein: The Final Act | ★★ | September 2021


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A Princess Undone – 3 Stars


A Princess Undone

Park Theatre

Reviewed – 26th February 2018


“this regal rendezvous has small glimmers of brilliance but is left feeling as muddied as Princess Margaret’s name in the news”


The Royal Family have always been hot news, and this year in particular, is no exception. With another royal baby and a royal wedding on its way, the younger generations of the Windsor family are constantly being displayed as front-page headlines. This is nothing new. Before even the likes of Diana became tabloid fodder, there was one Royal whose name grew synonymous with gossip and scandal. Princess Margaret. Her Majesty’s sister had always been a somewhat elusive, mysterious figure, yet her name never strayed far away from the papers. In recent years, she has once again become a matter of interest, helped greatly by the overwhelming success and popularity of the Netflix series The Crown, and Ma’am Darling, last year’s best-selling biography by Craig Brown.

Now, it’s the theatre’s turn to try and get under the skin of Princess Margaret. Inspired by true events, actor Richard Stirling’s play, A Princess Undone, focuses on a particular moment within the late princess’ life where her antics were being upstaged by a new breed of royals, forcing Margaret to unwillingly retreat into the shadows. Stirling attempts to try and comprehend the ball of contradictions that the princess was wrapped within, however, the play is inconsistent in its execution of this, ultimately becoming a rather lacklustre and stuffy affair.

The year is 1993, a time when the Royal Family is struggling to keep face through its ‘annus horribilus’. Living within the apartments of Kensington Palace, Margaret (Felicity Dean) tries damage control, princess style, by enlisting the help of the Queen Mother’s butler, William Tallon (played by Stirling himself) to assist in stealing a selection of potentially scandalous letters, photographs and other personal correspondence from Clarence House – her mother’s residence. Whilst sifting through the piles of papers, ready to burn, Margaret coolly comments on her royal neighbours, whilst Tallon single-handedly deals with her haughty demands and droll remarks with assured repartee.

The witty yet stagnant first half includes the intrusion of the young Tristan (Alexander Knox), a friend of Margaret’s son, whose appearance is somewhat meaningless to the overall plot. It is not until the arrival of infamous gangster-come-playboy-come-actor, John Lindon (Patrick Toomey) that the dramatic tension starts to heat up.

There are moments within A Princess Undone where it shines, particularly within its humour. The sight of Felicity Dean in marigolds and a paper crown, smoking, drinking and prancing around to Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites on the record player, utterly personifies the Princess’ struggle between her dutiful persona and privately being conventional and problematic. However, there are also times where it feels bloated by the text, assuming that the audience has a decent knowledge of Princess Margaret’s life. Thank goodness I had flicked through the programme before the show is all I can say! Bogged down by its dialogue, this regal rendezvous has small glimmers of brilliance but is left feeling as muddied as Princess Margaret’s name in the news.


Reviewed by Phoebe Cole

Photography by Simon Annand


A Princess Undone

Park Theatre until 17th March



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