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The Merchant of Venice 1936
17th October 2023 - 21st October 2023
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 1936
Ambition, power and political unrest explode onto the stage in The Merchant of Venice 1936, direct from the RSC. Starring Tracy-Ann Oberman (Eastenders, Doctor Who) as Shylock, Shakespeare’s classic is transported to 1930s Britain in this ground-breaking new production from acclaimed director Brigid Larmour.
Tensions in London’s East End are rising and Shylock, a resilient single mother and hard-working businesswoman, is desperate to protect her daughter’s future. When the charismatic merchant Antonio comes to her for a loan, a high-stakes deal is struck. Will Shylock take her revenge, and who will pay the ultimate price?
‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?’
Don’t miss this unforgettable, electrifying new production of The Merchant of Venice, a timely and thought-provoking reminder of a key moment in British history.
There will be a Post Show Talk after the 7.30pm performance on Thursday. Free to ticket holders.
Running time: 2 hours (including interval)
The performance on Wednesday 18th October at 2.30pm will be Audio Described.
There will also be a touch tour prior to this performance.
Advanced booking is essential. Please contact Bridget Lloyd (email@example.com) or 01684 580956.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
Fairy Powered Productions - Courie Amado Juneau
The Merchant of Venice is of course the play with the “pound of flesh”. You know the one, although, you won’t quite know this version of it, being transplanted to the East End of London in 1936.
The use of contemporaneous music just before “curtain up” produces a “calm before the storm” effect which fine tunes the emotional triggers for what is to come – for although the Bard considered this a comedy, for me it is much more a tragedy (some humorous moments notwithstanding).
Director Brigid Larmour has not been afraid to make bold changes to the source material, perhaps the boldest being to change male characters into female ones – like the Jewish moneylender Shylock and Lancelot (into Mary) Gobbo. For some purists this might jar but for me this worked perfectly, without any detraction. I also loved the way the audience was included in the action, extending the emotional impact and engagement far beyond the edge of the stage, displaying keen directorial instincts.
Tracy-Ann Oberman gave an impressively nuanced performance as Shylock (I nearly said title character there, Shylock being so central). One moment in celebration with her people, the next subtly bargaining and scheming, the next distraught, then vengeful… A stunning performance that was nothing less than riveting. Her delivery of the “hath not a Jew eyes” speech was utterly compelling.
Speaking of famous Shakespearean lines/turn of phrases – this play is liberally sprinkled with tons of them: “All that glisters is not gold”, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”… Although great swathes of the text are heavily cut, we have lost nothing of the essential greatness of this play.
Raymond Coulthard (as Antonio) got the joy of delivering the “…a stage where every man must play a part” speech. Another powerhouse performance from an actor totally in command of the material, I was spellbound. His wonderful rendition of Arragon was a joy as he unleashed the full throttled flamboyance of the Iberian peninsular. Flamenco-esque and one of my personal highlights.
Remember the title (1936)? The use of projection was a masterstroke here – showing newsreel footage of the British Fascists marches etc; bringing the powder keg times into sharp focus and reminding us that “old” attitudes are not as “old” as we would like to believe. A paltry word count, alas, prevents me praising each of the amazing cast in person. But I will make special mention of Gavin Fowler (Bassiano) and Hannah Morrish (Portia) whose scenes together throughout (especially the letter from Antonio revelation and the courtroom scenes) were particularly moving.
We return at the end to the Battle of Cable Street when Anti fascists stepped in where the police feared to tread. It’s never not the perfect moment for a ¡No Pasaran! stand. A timely reminder that humanity has virtuous qualities after all. The standing ovation had already begun… what a way to finish! A weighty, challenging piece that is nonetheless a most enjoyable evening’s entertainment and live theatre at its best. A production that will get many deserved plaudits, with a fabulous cast and taught direction. The best I’ve ever seen Shakespeare done and I wholeheartedly encourage you to get yourself a ticket asap.
Showtime! - John Phillpott
Depending on your point of view, this adaptation of the Shakespeare classic is either highly topical or hideously timed, bearing in mind the present situation in the Middle East.
Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman’s adaptation is set in 1936, as Oswald Mosley’s fascists perpetrate – seemingly at will – all manner of antisemitic beastliness, mirroring that which would soon engulf German-occupied Europe.
Back then, the battle lines appear to have been clearly drawn, unlike today, when antisemitism – invariably masquerading as moralising disapproval of Israel’s actions in Gaza – once again stains the streets of British towns and cities with its rank ugliness.
For nearly 90 years later, hatred of the Jews now reaches across all political boundaries, with some creeds and cultures being worse than others.
The recent internal investigations conducted into the British Labour Party, driven by its leader Keir Starmer, most surely proves that the twin evils of prejudice and bigotry are not the sole preserves of the Far Right.
Nevertheless, it is the latter that is the main preoccupation of this play, set in the toxic atmosphere that exists just before the notorious Battle of Cable Street, in which it seems a whole community came together to defeat Mosley’s black-shirted thugs.
Central character Shylock, played with a white-hot intensity by Tracy-Ann Oberman, plies her money-lending trade across London’s East End. Of course, William Shakespeare, being a man of his time, famously reverted to the cliché of the Jew that has persisted down the centuries to build his characterisation.
No wonder British theatres have for decades been tip-toeing around this play.
Shylock deals in treachery as well as ducats, and it is during the numerous exchanges with the protagonists that Oberman’s endless talents come to the fore. She turns in some truly explosive performances as she lays down the appalling terms of her loan to Antonio (Raymond Coulthard).
Despite the awful penalty that must be paid if he fails to settle his debt on time, he has no problem with being a pragmatic capitalist Gentile entering into a business agreement with a daughter of Abraham.
Unfortunately for him though, his merchant ship, laden with riches, is sunk off the Goodwin Sands. This means he has the mother of all cash flow problems, and so he prepares himself for the cruellest cut of all.
For Shylock now demands that infamous pound of flesh, to be cut from the heart of the hapless businessman.
Strong performances too from Priyank Morjaria (Lorenzo), Hannah Morrish (Portia), and Gavin Fowler as Bassanio, irritatingly misspelled twice in the programme. Hell’s teeth, is there no such thing as a proof reader anymore?
Meanwhile, Gratiano (Xavier Starr) excels as a nasty piece of work when, draped in the Union Jack, he indulges in a bit of freelance Jew-baiting.
One small point. The use of Britain’s national flag as an instrument of evil does tend to imply that most people in 1936 were swivel-eyed Nazis. I would suggest that the resolve and bravery of the British people four years later – by far the decent majority, actually – in the face of Hitler’s hordes most certainly suggests otherwise.
Nonetheless, this is a sterling production. And one that reminds us that the reptile vileness, which permanently lurks in the human brain, is never far below the surface of what superficially appears to be a polite, civilised society.
But tragically, much of what existed in 1936 is still festering in the present, as buildings are daubed and Jewish parents in 2023 fear for their children’s safety. The only difference is that nowadays, the hatred comes in any number of disguises, both political and cultural.
Not since 1945 have anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Israeli/Palestine conflict been so predominant and divisive as they are today. As such, The Merchant of Venice 1936 is deeply apt and timely.
Directed by Brigid Larmour, the production encapsulates the dangers of global fascism whilst at the same time providing a localised prism through which to see the toxic intolerance and hatred of otherness.
Set in the decadent, Edwardian period of the 1930s upper class Britain – with lavish dresses, cricket jumpers, cravats and double breasted suits – it has strange echoes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. However, with words and images of Oswald Mosley, the Blackshirts, and the Union Jack as the backdrop, we see a dark, sinister side to the roots that subsequently gave rise to the horrors that engulfed Europe.
Led (and Co-adapted) by Tracy-Ann Oberman, this is a pleasing, relatively innocuous and inoffensive piece of work.
Oberman does a fine job as the hateful, money lender Shylock, hell-bent on drawing her bond of extracting a pound of flesh from Antonio. She delivers an excellent, riveting performance that is insightful and intelligent. She plays Shylock without resorting to hyperbolic gestures, language or intonation but with just the right degree of both contemptibility and sympathy. She does a commendable balancing act of making us wonder whether Shylock is ‘as an inhuman wretch/incapable of pity’ or a victim of a certain kind prejudice and injustice.
The production (currently on tour) doesn’t pull many punches nor does it offer a particularly radical interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. It isn’t contentious nor is it in danger of attracting public protest. Apart from shortening the text and changing Shylock into a female character – a formidable, domineering Jewish woman who harbours all the resentment of her people against the Christians – the play remains faithful to the original Elizabethan story. And this is all well and good. Oberman even pulls off the crude Jewish accent without drawing too much attention to what she might be accused of.
However, there some nuances – albeit, not very overt – suggesting that Bassiano (Gavin Fowler) and Antonio are gay whilst Lancelot Gobbo becomes a female Mary Gobbo (Jessica Dennis). Though a tad irritating, such anomalies don’t distract us from the plot nor do Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) and Portia (Hannah Moorish) being played by mature actors at odds with characters who are supposed to be naïve – someone with an unflinching belief in mercantile business, and a very young woman as a suitor respectively. The ending – when the fourth wall is dismantled – is also questionable. Everyone in the audience is compelled to stand and form a protest taking place on stage, whilst Shylock provides a short didactic speech. It seems like a piece taken from agitprop theatre, and its function here appears just as crude and abhorrent as witnessing someone extracting a pound of flesh.
Perhaps this is just nit-picking because overall the production is very enjoyable and littered with humour. It is certainly a tale of our times and thus well worth seeing.
The View from the Stalls - Pete Phillips
Successfully relocated in time and place to make it a contemporary classic
There are two things which ensure that this version of The Merchant of Venice will stand out - the title, where the year 1936 has been added, and the fact that the main character of Shylock is a woman. Not that the latter is particularly surprising as records show that Jewish women in medieval England were frequently in the habit of making loans, both to other Jews and also to Christians. It is a family of Jews who both start and end the play - with the original text having been substantially edited as well as the location, being set predominantly around the East End of London during a period where many Britons were backing Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists, an openly anti-Semitic organisation which later added National Socialists to its name. It is the fight against them in the Battle of Cable Street that forms the historical background to this adaptation. The images displayed on the backdrop effectively display the extreme sentiments and hatred of the time and were probably quite shocking to members of the audience unaware the Britain had ever been so blatantly like that.
The Shylock in question here is convincingly played by Tracy-Ann Oberman as a woman absolutely determined to get her "pound of flesh" whatever it takes until that determination finally becomes her downfall, due to the clever manipulation of the situation by a lawyer, a case of mistaken identity of which Shakespeare was so fond. The play was, in fact, adapted by Oberman, along with director Brigid Larmour, drawing on her own family where her great grandmother was a working-class matriarch in the East End. Antonio is played by Raymond Coulthard, who also doubles up in the role of Arragon, one of the unlucky suitors of Portia (Hannah Morrish) and here he adds a bit of light relief to the play with a very funny representation of the Prince. In order to woo Portia, Bassiano (Gavin Fowler) needed money. Antonio provided it and then became penniless himself when his shipping empire collapsed, requiring him to ask Shylock for the ill-fated loan.
Moving the play to a specific period and more recognisable setting in more recent history, albeit still before most people's memory but represented by actual film footage of the time, is certainly effective, especially given that, as evidenced by current events, the same tensions are present today. It is not so much the dim and distant past of 400 years ago which is under the microscope, but the much more recent, indeed contemporary, history of Jewish life both in Britain and beyond. This is an adaptation which will certainly strike a chord with its audience.
Entertainment Views Blog: Helen McWilliams
Tracy-Ann Oberman is a name and face I’ve been familiar with for a number of years. She’s always been on my radar in the most positive way, maybe aside from her appearance as a character in BBC One’s Casualty who had her sights set on Charlie! I jest, as she was so notable in that role that I still remember it today. Oberman has also played a wide variety of other roles on stage and screen of course, from the television you may remember her from Eastenders or indeed the lost episodes of Dad’s Army. I’d not had the pleasure of watching her work on stage before, although last year I was privileged to watch and review a production at The Royal Court Theatre called Jews. In Their Own Words – which she was instrumental in co-creating. The full review of that inspirational piece can be found here: Jews. In Their Own Words. The attention Oberman brings to antisemitic behaviours should be commended, I was already much more engaged in historical Jewish community experiences (as well as current ones) and then along comes The Merchant of Venice 1936.
Watching Tracy-Ann Oberman in the pivotal, heart-wrenching and gruelling role of Shylock is one of the single most powerful theatrical experiences I have had. The fact that she had the idea of playing Shylock as a Jewish matriarch set in 1930s East End comes as no surprise. I for one am over the moon to have had the opportunity to experience this immersive, hard-hitting, thought-provoking Shakespearean classic with such a force of a cast.
The set immediately transported me to the Great Depression, dark and grey – almost lending a black and white quality to the overall picture on stage. Liz Cooke has designed set and costumes and done a notably brilliant job on both. Equally the lighting design by Rory Beaton is superbly atmospheric and goes a long way towards ensuring that the ambience is palpable. Indeed the scene is set for wheeling, dealing, deception and a quest for love.
Shylock is introduced as a woman with impenetrable principals, one who appears to realise the power she can wield and she’s fiercely protective of all she owns – including her daughter, Jessica. Their relationship is left barely hanging by a thread however, when Jessica elopes with a Christian suitor called Lorenzo. This storyline weaves intricately into the main tale of Shylock’s bond with antisemitic Antonio, the merchant who has borrowed money to help his friend Bassanio to court Portia. When Antonio fails to repay the loan within the specified period, it’s time to find out if Shylock intends to stick to the drastic terms of their bond.
Raymond Coulthard is exceptional in the role of Antonio, teasing out every nuance of the character and he has some extraordinary interactions with Oberman as Shylock. They’re a formidable pair of sworn enemies that’s for sure. The love story between Bassanio (Gavin Fowler) and Portia (Hannah Morrish) is quite something, Fowler and Morrish play it with subtle gentility and the characters have long been one of my favourite Shakespeare pairings.
Direction from Brigid Larmour is precise, fits every context and seems to inspire the cast to come together as a tight knit ensemble. I’m keen to see more of her work.
As an introduction to Shakespeare I feel this would be a setting and a theme that would be engaging to a first-timer. It’s a moving sentiment yet simultaneously harrowing. A vastly unique Shakespearean experience not to be missed.
Behind the Arras - Roderic Dunnett
Well, an RSC Merchant of Venice that proved outstanding in countless respects - except in one.
A lot of hoo-hah has gone on in tiresomely rather typically smug RSC publicity about a ‘new’, ‘fresh’ or ‘original’ idea.’ This is to do with Director Brigid Larmour’s decision – not a bad thought in essence – to transfer the play to, if not the modern day, to a day not so long ago.
The horrendous experience, not of German Jews voraciously hounded to death by Hitler, but more especially of British Jews, who were subjected to the ruthless onslaughts of Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts, the British Union of Fascists, until (as at the end of the play) the UK’s left wing emerged on to the streets – one particular street – and took on the monstrous opposition.
Well, all good so far. No harm at all in updating. The trouble is that, taking aboard and condemning one of the most appalling, shameful experiences of Britain in the earlier half of last century, one has to hammer home, to blast out, the point to considerable effect. It needs rich, and clever, varied, exemplary and powerful illustration. What was this Merchant of Venice 1936, but Shakespeare plus a few half-baked ideas?
Sad to say, this aspect proved all a bit vapid; slightly like jumping on a current bandwagon (minorities, etc.). Yes, there were half a dozen full-size black and white images on the cyclorama depicting, aptly and rather gruesomely (actually a bit like a child’s comic book or a Steve Bell cartoon nowadays), Mosley himself, or his followers, and indeed showing what a nightmare he unleashed.
Yes, latterly irascible Gratiano (Xavier Starr, magnificent, and yes, he could have made a blackshirt) and the beleaguered Antonio (Raymond Coulthard, superb, though highly unlikely to don a fascist scarlet armband) and Bassanio – insanely spelt ‘Bassiano’ in both cast list and credits, given that Portia (the truly wonderful Hannah Morrish) audibly calls him Bassanio; and all three, a bit ludicrously, given they don’t constantly display them, chose to wear armbands when they went to Portia’s dwelling in ‘Belmont’. Bassanio’s her most sought-after suitor, for goodness’ sake.
A case of ‘oh yes, let’s give them Nazi or Mosleyite armbands, and that will make this story terribly 1930s-ish’.
The idea went phut. It simply wasn’t developed enough to impact. In effect, a rather feeble, tacky add-on.
Special credit, however: the production stuck almost totally to Shakespeare’s text. The opening preface, in which Shylock (Tracy-Ann Oberman – glorious) presides over a prayer-led Jewish meal, was an excellent idea. Timeless. Universal. Nothing to do with the 1930s. But ever so moving and effective. It set just the right tone for Shylock’s forthcoming endeavours, and fall. Antonio’s chums Salarino and Salanio were both ditched. Another good idea, they are, to a degree, pretty empty; just courtiers. A few of their lines may, or may not, have been reallocated to Gratiano, in which case, good again. Tubal is retained, a little too rearstage, but for some reason renamed ‘Yuval’: to be fair, an actual male or female Jewish first name; and it didn’t matter.
Gone too were the comics: not exactly Shakespeare’s funniest piece of writing (contrast Touchstone, Bottom, or indeed the Porter from Macbeth, so unforgettably played by Alison Peebles in the RSC’s recent Macbeth). Launcelot Gobbo and his dad Old Gobbo are, as Larmour and Oberman ‘adapting’ this showed, not crucial. Binning them – unless Jessica’s tender exchange with them remains - leaves us without the (supposedly) comic subplot (thus Jessica and Lorenzo are the principal subplot here), but makes us concentrate on the main thesis, and on Shylock. Not just a perfectly acceptable decision. In fact, rather a sensible one.
Slimmed down a bit – a fraction – did this Merchant no harm. Now one of the big issues, I think also alluded to in the publicity, is that we can, possibly should, feel sympathy – some identification – with Shylock. Well of course. Despite the vicious lines of Gratiano near the end of the trial - here he’s portrayed as a real tough, even a thug, a sort of Rik Mayall - Shakespeare gives to Shylock one of the two most important speeches (the other of course is Portia’s) in the play; indeed in any of his plays: “Hath not a Jew eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?...If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Unfortunately he culminates with “…and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
But Shylock, in the same speech, has a defence, of sorts, to even that revenge: this, he tells us (accurately, for England in the 1930s?) is what a Christian would seek. “The villainy you teach me I shall execute, and it will go hard but I will better the instruction.” Not: Do as you would be done by. But: An eye for an eye….
Those tragic words, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew …” render this the most famous defence of Jewry in English literature. Until Shylock later goes ahead with his sneering, relentless threat, and despite his nasty “To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” we have certainly begun to feel for him. Perhaps, all the cast surmises, this is just bravado.
Curious, given that Leviticus 19:13 stipulates that taking personal vengeance is strictly forbidden in the law. In fact, no one should/could 'take vengeance' or even 'bear a grudge' against their people, but were to love their neighbour as themselves. Was Shylock acting against his own rules? However, a caveat: views differ about what ‘neighbours’ actually denotes.
But then, “Is it possible a dog should lend 3,000 ducats? “As so often, the casting of an outstanding actor/actress like Tracy-Ann Oberman proves how terrific they usually are – how they excel - in male roles, especially in Shakespeare: Timon, Lear, King John. Hopefully we’ll see more of the opposite, too (Mark Rylance as Olivia) as well.
Only minuscule adaptations of the text are obligatory (Shylock is, for example, Jessica’s (Gráinne Dromgoole, delightful) ‘mother’; a few ‘she’s and ‘her’s are quite harmlessly dotted around. The play suffers not one jot. Oberman’s speaking – including cursing her errant daughter - is impeccable at every turn. Real polished delivery. Actually the speaking of the whole cast deserves applause. If this was something Larmour, directing, aimed for, she was enormously successful.
And quite apart from “I am a Jew”, Shylock’s riposte “Yes, to smell pork… I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you… but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” may underline a distinct culture, but is scarcely hostile to Jewry: rather, an accurate depiction. And here of course, quite beautifully spoken.
Rory Beaton’s lighting created all the right, apt effects, including some chiaroscuro (e.g. at the opening repast). The costumes (Liz Cooke) were truly wondrous, not just Shylock’s, at times sinister, but above all Portia’s (gorgeous gold, brilliantly shaped dress, that was indeed 1930s, not 1590s). Her change(s) of attire, and her turnout as the Advocate, were super-duper: utterly scrumptious. So were those for Nerissa, her savvy, omnipresent soubrette (Jessica Dennis).
Raymond Coulthard’s Antonio was to me so convincing: at the least, in the main. Antonio (a role I played myself, at school) has his moments, but is not as strongly drawn (by the Bard) as he might be. The most arresting moment – the moment when he draws back Bassanio for a kiss on the lips – was a definite hit. At 15 I worked out that Antonio’s love was – to a degree – gay, Bassanio (given Portia) being definitely het. But a funny detail is that doubling as a gloriously arrogant Aragon (the second, or silver, suitor), full of Hispanic flourishes, a sort of Don Armado (Love’s Labour’s Lost) or Don Ferolo Whiskerandos (Sheridan’s The Critic) with knobs on, he was of course – coincidentally – rivalling the patently “extravagant”, possibly playboy, Bassanio.
Antonio is somewhat wet in his ‘sadness’; somewhat doomed in his passion; somewhat naïve, even foolish, in not reckoning the possibility of a glut of typhoons wiping out all three of his argosies (treasure ships) from the West and East Indies and to the south (foundering off Tripoli, presumably Libya, not Syria) without double insuring by smaller borrowings his debt to Shylock (let alone in Venice or Florence, of all places, cities of bankers; and unthinkable in 1936). It’s odd if understandable that he sent Bassanio off (“Try what my credit can in Venice do”) to find a lender and then, with all his likely contacts, Shylock should be the only person he can turn to.
But the performances that set me on fire were those of the girls playing girls.
Belmonte is in Italian Calabria, more like 620 rather than 20 miles from Venice. Portia’s gorgeous – I think, gold Lamé? Certainly as stupendous – garment is the one she wears for the three suitors’ visits. The Prince of Morocco, redubbed here as a ‘Maharajah’: there is of course still a Crown Prince of Morocco, but no big issue with this, is entertainingly played (doubling as Lorenzo) by Priyank Morjaria, although effortlessly upstaged, needless to say, by Coulthard’s flamboyant, flouncing, all but flamencoing Arragon (2 ‘r’s: why? The Spanish is Aragón; Catalan Aragó).
Third and final suitor is Bassanio – or ‘Bassiano’ - himself. Gavin Fowler makes a rather sweet character, able to foul-mouth Shylock, and not exactly lordly. He reminds one rather of one of those worthy, loyal ancillaries - Benvolio, for instance. Bassanio needs to be a pretty boy, possibly fair, young (say 18-24), even inadvertently, or more likely consciously, even flirtatiously, sexy, for Antonio to dote on him. Fowler would have made an excellent Lorenzo, speaking that lovely envoi perhaps. Bassanio – well, maybe.
Every time Hannah Morrish as Portia stepped onto the stage, we were treated to a cocktail of charm, beauty, delicacy, taste, and supremely good acting. She exercised command, but was dignified, elegant and not bossy. She had a wry sense of humour – her later dressing up must have provided some laughter, to Dennis’s Nerissa at least. Wigs could be a disaster, but Liz Cooke’s for the two women, fabulously contrasted, were inspired. Entrancing.
I had forgotten we meet Portia so early in the Merchant. Her interplay with Nerissa in scene 2, possibly a little, but sensibly, trimmed, shone. Nerissa could put on an accent here, and I do believe she did – Irish? If so, inconsistent – “What say you, then to Faulconbridge, the young Baron of England?” The poor lad seems to have got the boot already. Portia: “Who can converse with a dumb-show? I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his bonnet in Germany, and his behaviour every where” (but speaks and understands no Latin, French, nor Italian”). These two girls play their sense of humour off one another: and how masterfully (if that’s not a misnomer) they played it here. An absolute joy to listen to, and a thrill to watch – in Portia’s case, every little move or gesture.
And it’s they, not the crestfallen, fascist-armbanded, somewhat belatedly chest-baring Antonio (in fact he reveals it scarcely at all – definitely a weakness; another is that no 1930s blackshirt (qv brown shirt) would likely be hauled to court by a Jew anyway - who are the stars of the court scene. Strangely it was not Portia’s (the text calls her Balthazar, a famous but sick advocate’s stand-in, “a young doctor of Rome”) “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech, but the many brilliant traps with which she deceives Shylock, for all his “It is my hour…I can give no reason” or “a Daniel come for judgment” that stood out. Antonio is the one with the long submissive speeches here: his almost weedy acquiescence (a blackshirt’s acquiescence??) is finely given voice to by Coulthard, again in fine form. Comes good by offering the money (the cause of all this drama), and even doubling it.
The moment Portia and Nerissa arrive wigless before a well-played Duke (Alex Zur, always impactful in smaller roles too), they hit one in the solar plexus. Hannah Morrish was a phenomenally beautiful girl. She was an even more beautiful haircut boy. Much of her impact drew upon this astounding fact. No wonder they all thought she was a chap, and hence were more swayed by her/him than ever. “The Jew shall have all justice”; “Thou shall have nothing but the forfeiture”, and her astonishing “The law hath yet another hold on you” long speech, were simply gripping: brought by Larmour significantly to front stage, Morrish provided a marvel of speaking, and acting. The double rings wheeze was witty and entertaining. One of the best Portias ever seen on an English stage? The role is a winner anyway, but I’d guess so.
Abetted by Nerissa (Jessica Dennis): always present, each time backing up, but always made relevant: laughing, mischievous, cavorting, party to the risky but daring plan, firm when on silent duty at the hearing, here was another fine – and memorable – performer. A lovely change of dress to enticing blue. And she can sing. Divinely.
Indeed, the girls scored yet again, with a delightful, believable Jessica (Shylock’s absconding daughter, Dromgoole). Starting at a desk, dressed like a demure schoolgirl, seemingly serving as her father’s secretary, and then dressing for the escape, and effecting it, this Jessica and her imprisoning family ‘betrayal’ (there is no real mother in the original) seemed confident and daring. The exquisite Act 5 opener; “in such a night as this” Morjaria slightly threw away, but the brief exchanges (they too have made it to Belmont) were touching, with Jessica’s final “Stealing her soul with many vows of faith” topping the lot, before interrupted. An addition: Nancy Farino made an enchanting, multi-curtseying maid. Almost a star turn herself.
It should of course be emphasised that all this benefited by first-rate Direction from co-adapter Brigid Larmour. At every point she seemed to position each actor in the right place: her definition of the roles – all of them – was always well worked out: lucid - if in the fellows’ cases might have been better still, but only in some minor aspects of detail. Working with the cast she had, she made an extremely, deliciously presented job of it. Liz Cooke’s set and table props added not much (apart from the back projections, delivered and seemingly researched by Rory Beaton with Cooke or Larmour or both).
A word however about Gratiano, Xavier Starr. He has the smallest credits, honestly stated in the very desirable Programme, he has, he or his agent tells us, just graduated from the Central School. He was I thought frankly one of the best: excellent in every way. A handsome tall almost Hitler Youth fair-haired bully boy, hectoring, almost shouting from the start, exuding unusual malice, he gave Gratiano a distinct personality, sometimes booming, always domineering yet expressive in his laudably clear speaking. Here, surely, is a Coriolanus, an Andronicus, an Arturo Ui, maybe even a Caliban in the making.
Good news, then. But almost every aspect of Brigid Larmour’s production is just that. I enjoyed it hugely.
What a fantastic production. Setting it in 1936 gave it an added dimension. Superb acting from everyone. To me it made no difference if Shylock was male or female. It worked perfectly in this setting. Merchant of Venice is a truly horrible play, but this production gave it such a positive ending after the humiliation of Shylock. It was particularly interesting to see in the current climate.