Pros: The simplified storyline makes Shakespeare more accessible to newcomers.
Cons: The contemporary audio visuals clash with the sixteenth century dialogue, which could be confusing for some theatregoers.
It somehow seems fitting that Rosemary Branch is staging an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Deep in the heart of Shoreditch, it’s just a stone’s throw away from the site of the Curtain Theatre where some of the Bard’s plays were first performed. Fifteen minutes’ walk from Old Street tube station, the Rosemary Branch is a charming pub with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Initially, the interior gives no indication that a theatre is secreted within its walls. A discreet silver plaque at the end of the bar announces its presence, however. The auditorium is surprisingly large, with seating for fifty-seven people. The rectangular black space is sparsely lit, and the modest set consists of one solitary desk and three filing cabinets. A stage left entry point allows actors to pass through the audience, which always makes me feel part of the action.
The play itself is a well known tale of greed, wealth and power. However, it does no harm to briefly recap: Bassanio tells his friend Antonio that he needs money to win the affections of Portia, a wealthy heiress. Since Antonio’s money is temporarily tied up, Bassanio suggests that he approach Shylock, a Jewish money lender, to secure a loan. Antonio agrees to act as guarantor for the loan. Shylock agrees to the loan free of interest, but demands a pound of flesh from Antonio in the event of default.
The show opens with sounds of the Underground and familiar refrain of ‘mind the gap’: clear indications of a twenty-first century makeover. The cast accordingly make their entrance with contemporary props in hand; mobiles, tablets and laptops provide a glimpse of how the characters would have coped with our IT savvy world. Their clothing too is suitably modern. Nerissa for example, is a power dressing PA to the chic Portia. Shylock’s only nod to modernity is a briefcase with black overcoat and Homburg hat. Fragments of pop songs, like Abba’s Money, Money, Money also prove the story still resonates with modern life. At one hour and twenty minutes, the production sweeps along at a steady pace and builds to a swift conclusion. Poetic Justice Productions certainly deserve credit for giving the narrative a more compressed feel without making it any less powerful.
The cast deliver solid, confident performances throughout. Special mention must go to Emma Lyndon-Stanford as Portia, whose performance is beguiling and commanding in equal measure. Ashley Gunstock plays Shylock with a gleeful sense of spite and vitriol. Saul Matlock as Bassanio complements Joe Shefer’s tortured Antonio, while Lisa Sheerin doubling as Nerissa and Jessica gives Josh Jewkes’ Lorenzo a run for his money.
My only real qualm is that contemporary references are limited to audio visuals. Why wasn’t the dialogue updated in the same way? The ‘mind the gap’ sound effect gave me the impression that the action would be confined to London. But a strategically positioned laptop confirmed we were back in sixteenth century Venice. Updating any classic story should really aim to attract the uninitiated. You could argue that authenticity would be lost if we use modern parlance, but for me, it’s all about making Shakespeare more accessible. Setting the play in London could have broken down more barriers, whereas this partial update might simply confuse.
Author: William Shakespeare
Adapted by: Eric Richard
Director: Susannah Lane Bragg
Producers: Joe Shefer and Ashley Gunstock for Poetic Justice Productions
Box Office: 020 7704 6665
Booking Link: http://www.rosemarybranch.co.uk/#/the-trial-of-the-jew-shylock/4582373551
Booking Until: 1st June 2014