The Merchant of Venice

Well, back from 4 days in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

What can I say? The town is a mess. The unnecessary vigour to tear down the old theatre and replace it with a new one as now spread to the Bancroft Gardens. Every inch seems to have been dug over and turned to mud. Fences and scaffold surround everywhere in sight and I felt sorry for those who had travelled from France and Japan (seemed like the only two kind of tourists in evidence!) who had made a long journey and who were missing the old town at its best.

Hotel? The Swan’s Nest. Good, as always. The location – on the banks of the river  – makes up for any shortcomings.

Restaurants? Well, I ate at Thespians (an Indian restaurant), The Thai Boathouse (Thai surprisingly!) and Cafe Rouge (French). Thespians lacked in atmosphere and conviviality but had reasonably good food. Thai Boathouse was a little disappointing (I’ve been there before). Cafe Rouge was excellent. The teenage waitress serving my table used the word “fantastic” in response to everything I said and was amazingly hyper. I’ll have whatever she was on, please. This amusement was accompanied by excellent food. The tomato, coriander and basil soup and lamb cutlets come strongly recommended. The chocolat fondant with creme anglaise is less so but it would be mean to say too much against a really good meal.

Whilst the town is suffering, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in rude health. The presence of David Tennant (the good Doctor) in the cast list means buoyant ticket sales for Hamlet in the Autumn. The current incumbent of the Courtyard Theatre (only one of the three theatres which is in working order), the Merchant of Venice seems set to be a quieter visitor but is well-presented, well-directed and well-acted, even if does not have the big TV stars to guarantee advance sellout (Dr. Legg from Eastenders not withstanding).

The reviews and comments that I have seen have been mixed so far but I was there the night before “Press Night” so the jury is still out amongst whichever dozen or so critics you might choose. Amusingly, one magazine I looked at had only two comments – one which enthused potential ticket buyers to see it as a “Must Go” whilst the other decried it and told the uncommitted to stay away. I suspect most will see it as a little more average than that avoiding either end of the critical spectrum. For my money (for that is quite the issue here), this is a good production if a tad under-directed and under-costumed.

In the opening scenes, all the besuited men seem to have frequented the same tailor and not a very good one at that. Laura Hopkin’s choice of costumes seems to improve as the scenes move along (if you turn away from Nerissa’s (Amanda Hadingue) yellow concoction in which she chooses to travel to Venice) but the lack of contrast in these early scenes gives us a precious lack of clues to help identify who these characters have become in their lives before the playwright’s eye zooms in on them in the stories we see closely. The Shylock (Angus Wright) who steps out of the dance which opens this production and steps back into it at the end of the final scene looks every inch a banker but his costume does not help us to understand whether he is a secular Jew or as stern in his oppositions to other faiths as the Christians have been towards him. Do they dislike all Jews as much as they dislike him or is it usury and lack of personableness which has particularly raised the ire of the Christian townfolk against him on the Rialto and elsewhere? Is he virulently religious or does is self-righteousness come from some other source? Tubal (Peter Shorey) is much more obviously Jewish in appearance (albeit a little contemporarily so) and he isn’t minded one way or another by the Christians we meet.

There are other more confusing directorial choices. Antonio is the same age as Bassanio which leaves some questions unanswered about the motivation for his patronising, and acclaimed love, of Bassanio, given his apparent enthusiasm to see him married to Portia. When I spoke to director, Tim Carroll, about this, he dismissed it saying that to make an Antonio a generation older is “a cliche”. I’ll take his word that it has become such but there were no obvious signs in his direction as to why he broke with the convention. We must also note that whilst Shakespeare’s words require reference, at least twice, to Portia’s “golden” hair, he had chosen to cast a brunette (Georgina Rich) without requiring the costume department to purchase a wig. Ms. Rich proved a revelation and easily overcame the burden of a dress of which the hem will hopefully be adjusted by said costume department before too many more performances have past.

The strength of the production is found where ought to be in vital performances by the cast which belied the fact that the majority of them are in their opening RSC season. In “Merchant…” they are gifted a script, which whilst rather controversial in this modern world, has nary a wasted word and very few of their lines could have been given much more vigour and passion than they had to tonight. Bassanio (Jack Laskey) is excellent when devoted to Portia and Antonio, evokes sympathy and humour when he is unsure how to get out of the quandaries he has walked blindly into, and delivers his major lines with just the right required measure and aplomb. Antonio (James Garnon) is stoic when in trouble and impassioned in his desire to see Bassanio into the right situation. Mr Garnon stumbled on his words occasionally but once this is overcome, he will be amongst the great strengths of the production. The lesser roles of Gratiano, Solanio, Lorenzo and Solerio are delivered in a manner which is never less than competent and often far above that mark. Nerissa interacts with the audience in a way that provides the heartiest laughs of the night which I didn’t see coming. Launcelot Gobbo (William Beck) whose lines provide far more opportunity for such interaction is a little under-developed.

In the final scene, Portia has gained an ambivalence towards Bassanio which is made obvious by Georgina Rich’s careful avoidance of physical contact with Mr Laskey. The route from the real passion of the earlier scenes to this apparent lack-of-the-same is spoilt for the audience by the decision of the director to deliver the moment of dialogue between Nerissa and Portia with the actors’ faces concealed.

The finest performance of the night comes from the already-mentioned Angus Wright who overcomes lack of clarity about the direction and background of his character by a venomously strong depiction of a man hellbent to gain revenge from all the very real slights that have been poured on him when his help was not needed by those who he now brings to court.

This production can only grow as the confidence of its cast grows and it already has much about it which is very worthwhile.

It’s worth noting that the Courtyard Theatre is running a “Stand-up for Shakespeare” campaign at the moment – which is designed to encourage people to introduce their children to the Bard at an early age. I, for one, was introduced to Shakespeare between the ages of 14 and 18 by Peter Hay and Gloria Morris, my teachers at Broadway School and Sixth Form College. By and large, I’ve stuck with it since then (there were some years in the wilderness due to the lack of interest of those I’ve lived with but I’ve decided to plough my own furrow on that one now) and I’m heartily convinced that taking in the RSC’s productions is simply one of the best pastimes and intellectual and artistic pursuits that life can offer. Take your kids along, enjoy it for yourself and let’s hope that when they’ve got the new theatre and its surroundings sorted out, it will have been worth the current domination by wrecking ball and digger.

One thought on “The Merchant of Venice

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Reviews | twilightdawning

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