Pros: Fantastic language, brilliant casting, wonderful night.
Cons: Some in-jokes for the south-Asian community, though not to an alienating degree.
As a theatre goer, you quickly become bored of hearing that, once again, you’re seeing an adaption of Shakespeare. “We get it!” you’re close to screaming “his narratives are timeless and can be adapted to fit a modern setting! We get it!” A few of these adaptions get through every year, fewer work. It was with these thoughts in my head that I arrived at the Merchant of Vembley, very ready to endure the next few hours and complain about it loudly in the pub afterwards. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
For me, it all came down to the language. The argument is between whether you keep Shakespearean dialogue, with its rhymes and flourishes, or you make the language more up to date. The Merchant of Vembly chose the first path, swapping words and sections to fit with the play’s new setting and characters. It is a testament to the writing that the language doesn’t feel forced or overdone, and it straddles the line between pretty and pretentious perfectly.
In The Merchant of Vembley, the famous take on anti-semitism takes a new form – as a questioning of islamophobia in modern day London. Shylock the Jew is traded for Sharuk the Muslim, a local money lender who is regularly harassed by the Hindus in the area, so ingrained are the ideas of racial divide that once held stead in India. Emilio Doorgashingh’s portrayal of Sharuk was spot on, edging between the pious man, the thinker and the downtrodden member of society. Rohit Gokani took on the part of Sharuk’s antagonist fantastically too; a man at first so sure of himself that he’ll sign a deal that might forfeit a pound of his flesh (a very intimate joint in this adaption) who is then left resigned to his fate at the end, such is the pull of his pride.
I should probably mention that there were a few things that went over me and my companion’s heads, little jokes about Bollywood or that included Hindi phrases that large sections of the audience laughed hard at but we were left out. This is rare and not at all alienating, though. These jokes were often produced by Ishwar Maharaj in one of many comedic guises, each funny in different ways, needing different timings and temperaments, that were all done spectacularly.
The set consists of a row of spinning ornate doors along the back, sometimes used as an entrance, sometimes used to show something happening elsewhere, twisted back and forth to show scene changes, simple but effective and quite beautiful at times. The added lighting work and blocking made the whole stage feel important, even with a single character on. It meant our seats at the side didn’t feel away from the action or at all like we might be missing out.
The comedy and drama melded well, sat nicely ontop of the intelligent language, with a brilliant cast to bring it all to life. Even if you don’t get the Bollywood jokes, there’s a lot to love in this new adaption.
Author: Shishir Kurup
Director: Ajay Chowdhury
Set Design: Sean Cavanagh
Lighting Design: Ben Cracknell
Choreographer: Subhash Viman Gorania
Booking Until: 25th October 2015
Box Office: 020 7258 2925
Booking Link: http://tickets.thecockpit.org.uk/Sales/Shows/The-Merchant-of-Vembley#book