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The Merchant of Venice, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre – Review

William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Ricky Dukes
★★★★ 

Pros: The fantastic staging evoking a Venetian carnival with elements from The Godfather filtering through.

Cons: The transition from the trial scene to the ending left me aching for a more intense performance on Shylock’s part.

Our Verdict: A superbly presented, highly enjoyable and accessible take on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays.

Courtesy of the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

A new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is running at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. Slightly shorter than the original, this version focuses mainly on events leading up to the famous trial between the bloodthirsty Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and Antonio, a merchant of Venice.

Some readers might be familiar with events taking place, but for those who are not: Bassiano, played by Alexander Shenton, is madly in love with the fair Venetian heiress Portia (Rosemary Lippard).  He engages the help of Antonio (Paul Christian Rogers) in order to increase his wealth so that he may court her. Antonio, having all his fortune tied up at sea, borrows the money from Shylock, played by Stephen McNeice. But Shylock secretly holds a deeply rooted grudge against Christians such as Antonio, and he consents to the loan only if the asset for repayment is a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio happily consents and Bassiano is free to compete for Portia’s love along with her other suitors.

In this production topics of religion, love and revenge are dressed with very dark, and sometimes gory, comedy. There are characters in disguise, famous monologues: “if you prick us do we not bleed . . . if you poison us do we not die” and a big twist at the end, which you probably know but I’ll withhold nonetheless. All of this is happening in South London’s Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, arranged in classic Elizabethan style, with the seating surrounding the stage on all sides except one, which the actors use. A massive sturdy wooden table in the middle of the stage takes up most of the space, making the cast work around its surface, sit down on all four sides, and even deliver scenes standing up on it. There are small compartments carved inside the thick wood that open to reveal costumes and other elements hidden inside.

The audience is called in and the play opens. Everything is pitch black except for a single golden light shining over the table. At the back of the theatre, the line of shadows that are the actors starts approaching the front of the stage. There is intense, chilling music playing overhead accompanying a harsh, broken dance from the cast. It’s a dark carnival of movement, sounds, hissing voices and light. My adrenaline was flowing from minute one. After a few minutes, the music dies down, the players all sit around Antonio, Godfather style, and the scene begins.

When trying to convince people to see a Shakespeare play, I’m usually met by complains about the difficulty of the lines or the length of the performance; these are by no means a problem in this production. The story is condensed to less than two hours and the magnificent work from the cast makes the lines completely accessible: McNeice portrays a vengeful, vicious character, contrasting Rogers’ calm and trusting portrayal. Shenton is the perfect charming, handsome young lover, but undoubtedly, the performance of the night was Lippard’s Portia. The strong-minded, spunky character stole the show with her energy and stage presence.

This is a fantastic re-interpretation of a classic. Venice in all its dark splendor unfolds before you; the cast deliver outstanding performances interspersed with twisted dance scenes. Masks and a gory underplot add a grotesque flavor to the evening. The only reason it falls short of five stars is that the transition from the trial to the last scene lacked the intensity and despair needed to complement the evocative setting. But overall, do not miss this production.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below! 

The Merchant of Venice runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 7th December 2013. 
Box office: 0844 8700 887 or book online at www.brockleyjack.co.uk.

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