Pros: Some really touching moments, especially from Stephen Connery Brown as Shylock.
Cons: Generally poor diction and a few missed opportunities by the director
The Merchant of Venice, as the Director’s Notes mention, is a difficult play. On the surface, it is a tale of love and justice triumphing over greed, but beneath it lies a complex examination of anti-Semitism and other contemporary racist attitudes. It is either an indictment of the morally corrupt Christian middle class, or a ringing endorsement of their values from Shakespeare, depending on which stance the production takes.
To say that this show offered a detailed assessment of this might be a bit generous, but it certainly had something to say about class. Bassanio and the other Venetian playboys were dressed in Sloaney casual or their Bullingdon Club best, throughout expressing their privilege and hedonism. Lancelot Gobbo, on the other hand, appeared hobo-like outside a rubbish-strewn shack. The latter detail was a bizarre addition to a set that never quite made sense to me.
The show offered a less than subtle take on the text’s racial elements, offering a caricature of the Jewish Shylock and a panto of Princes of Morocco and Arragon. Stephen Connery Brown as Shylock gave a rich and varied performance, perhaps the strongest of the night. Nonetheless, his character’s ethnicity was still exaggerated, detracting somewhat from Shylock’s renowned dignity in the face of repeated humiliation.
This was one of a number of missed opportunities by the director, the most significant of which was the failure to emphasise the importance of diction, which was pretty poor all round. Another was the reluctance to explore Jessica’s story, one of the more interesting subplots. Despite the obvious ability of Claire Monique-Martin, who filled the role, Jessica’s story was cut down to its bare bones.
The production did take some advantage of the interesting space, using the balcony level as Shylock’s house from which Jessica escapes. The visual effect of this was slightly diminished by the bright lights that made it impossible for half of the audience to actually see Jessica. The altar was used to house the three caskets but they were largely masked from the audience by bulky church candles; a shame, as upon closer inspection, they were quite impressive. This, along with the ramshackle hovel that occupied much of the upstage area, and the washing lines hanging from the walls, gave the design a messy feel. The effect – perhaps designed to provide contrast with the wealth of the Christians – rather missed the mark, appearing haphazard. These criticisms are quite nitpicky, granted, but since I struggled to ascertain the wider idea of the production to latch onto to, these details stuck out to me.
All this being said, the spectacular nature of the venue can’t be ignored. St. Leonard’s looks and feels special before you remember that this is where theatre royalty Richard Burbage and father James are buried, and oh yeah, this is the church where they film Rev. Not even the odd assortment of rubbish bags and clothing lines can detract from the venue’s beauty – a real treat to visit, and the perfect venue to see Shakespeare in, even if this production falls just short of the text’s (and indeed cast’s) potential.
Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Benjamin Blyth
Producer: The Malachites
Booking Link: http://www.seetickets.com/tour/the-merchant-of-venice
Booking Until: 19th April 2013