The Merchant of Venice
CLF Art Cafe
Reviewed – 18th September 2019
“a funny, urgent and intense production, full of action and suspense”
I can’t think that there is any play so contentious and yet so regularly performed as The Merchant of Venice. Classed as a comedy and with all the Shakespearian trappings of one, it’s very difficult to understand what message we are meant to take away. Do we sympathise with the Jew (as he is so often affectionally referred to), or do we believe him to be unfeeling and unworthy of our sympathies? In short, do we consider Shylock’s humiliating downfall a happy ending, or a tragedy?
To The Elephant’s production seeks to explore the incredibly difficult conversations around racism, sexism and money as power. But regardless of their intentions, so long as the play is left unabridged (as it is), these questions can only be explored so much from a modern perspective. Instead I’m left feeling very uneasy when at the moment Shylock is stripped of his dignity along with all his worldly possessions, we are tittering at the mocking remarks made by Gratiano (Joseph Samimi) at Shylock’s expense.
The story, for those who didn’t have to study it a billion times at school, is that of Antonio (Chris Royle), an honourable and well-liked merchant, who finds himself in a financial bind and so seeks out Shylock the money lender (Atilla Akinci). Antonio and his Christian friends all share a deep disgust for Jews in general and Shylock in particular, and the feeling is reciprocated. On that basis, they strike a bizarre and bloody deal that should Antonio not come good on his loan repayment, Shylock may quite literally take “a pound of flesh”.
Under Kate Littlewood’s direction, the cast does well to inject pace and bite in to the script – an oft difficult task with ye olde Shakespeare. The subplot of Portia (Molly Moody), for example, seeking a suitor via her late father’s devising is the sort of silly scene, steeped in predictability and seventeenth-century word play, that could easily lull the audience to sleep, but Moody and Leda Douglas (playing Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting) are an excellent comedy duo, sharing knowing looks and eye-rolls whilst playing delightful hosts to the most absurd characters.
Royle’s Antonio is humble but charming; both Samini and Brian Chandrabose play Antonio’s friends, but find their comic footing in their doubled roles as Portia’s potential suitors; Sam Perry’s Lancelot Gobbo is obsequious and untrustworthy; Claire Bowman commands respect as Bassanio, and Susie Kimnell’s Solano is a loyal thug.
But Atilla Akinci’s Shylock steals the show, expressing with painful conviction the uncomfortable truths of his character. Whilst the script appears to conclude that he does indeed get his just desserts, Akinci’s performance does as much to tell us otherwise. He is certainly bitter and petty, but he is made so by his persecutors.
The design (Charlotte Henery) is simple, with no real scenery and few props, but the modern costumes set the scene aplenty, and the change of location to the theatre’s bar for the final courtroom scene gives the impression of the audience as a kind of mob, to great effect. We’re gasping and laughing as a paying chorus.
There is no doubt that Littlewood has succeeded in creating a funny, urgent and intense production, full of action and suspense. The only question lies in whether it’s time to lop off the ‘happy ending’ and allow these characters their complexities – both charming and hateful; honourable and ignoble – instead of holding on to a conclusion that strips them of their moral quandaries and leaves a modern audience feeling uneasy and confused.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Liviu Jipescu
The Merchant of Venice
CLF Art Cafe until 28th September
Previously reviewed at this venue: