Sunday, 31 May 2015

'The Merchant of Venice' at Shakespeare's Globe

The summer season at the Globe is really good this year. I've already seen an excellent production of 'Romeo & Juliet' and Friday night was the turn of 'The Merchant of Venice', another Shakespeare play I hadn't seen performed.  It had been raining on and off all day and was getting a bit chilly as we took our seats in the open air theatre but I was looking forward to seeing it for the first time. And then on came musicians and actors dressed for a masked ball to set the scene in old Venice.

There's a lot of storytelling going on in this play and the stories merge and become one as the play progresses. We've all heard of Shylock but it's not solely about Shylock. There's Bassanio who wants to marry Portia and Lorenzo who elopes with Jessica, Shylock's daughter who takes some of her father's riches as a dowery. In order to pursue his suit of Portia, Bassanio needs to borrow 3,000 ducats and he approaches his good older friend, the merchant Antonio who is short of cash but says Bassanio can use his name as surety for any loan he can find. And that's where Shylock comes in as the money-lender who agrees to a pound of flesh as the bond if the loan is not repaid. But he is pressured into this by Antonio's sneers about usury and charging interest on loans so Shylock waives interest in favour of a straight forward deal.

Through all the twists and turns of the play we get to know the characters, their strengths and weaknesses. As the plot goes forward it'sever winding and developing and taking new turns. Clearly, Bassanio must win Portia's hand but who would guess that he wouldn't recognise her later when she appears as the young male doctor of law in the court scene (I suspect that young Bassanio needs glasses). Jessica's eloping with Lorenzo doubles Shylock's determination to stick to the letter of the law and claim his pound of flesh when Antonio fails to deliver the cash on time, despite being offers more ducats by Bassanio. And who would guess that it's Portia, as the young doctor, who finds the solution to Antonio's dilemma and saves him at the last minute by a legal twist just as Shylock is about to extract his pound of flesh. There's a lot going on...

There's also a lot of very subtle and some not so subtle scenes of anti-semitism, something the play is famous for and this production brings out very powerfully. We have the good Antonio that everyone loves because such a nice and generous gentleman and yet as soon as he sees Shylock his demeanour totally changes into cold hate with vitriolic language and he even physically attacks Shylock by grabbing his throat. Why Shylock still agrees to loan Bassanio the money is a puzzlement after this treatment. Even the lovely lady Portia can't help but treat Jessica as a lowly person by handing her a wineglass to hold like a servant and slightly hesitates before including her in her kind words to Lorenzo. It's an oddity of the play really, since there were - according to the historical notes in the programme - only about 300 Jews in the country in Elizabethan times so the vast majority of the audience is unlikely to have met any Jews.

The court scene at the end of the play keeps you on the edge of your seat - obviously Antonio won't die or give up a pound of his flesh but how do we get there through the wtisting and turning arguments? This was performed very well indeed and you can almost see the inspiration strike as Portia hits upon the solution to save Antonio. And then the cruelty comes in by pushing and pushing against Shylock so he loses all the money but then also loses all his private wealth and house, to be left with nothing. Antonio declines his share of Shylock's wealth in favour of Shylock signing it over to Lorenzo and Jessica and provided Shylock converts to Christianity. What chance has Shylock?

The very final scene of resoltion with all the lovers present and the farce of the missing rings ends with Lorenzo and Jessica hearing of their bounty by inheriting wealth from Jessica's father, Shylock, and that should be end of the performance with their future secured. But this production goes one step further with Jessica on her knees wailing at the edge of the stage at the news of her father having to convert and a procession of churchmen in white robes coming on stage with Shylock to baptise him while chanting in Latin. There was a stillness and silence about this scene, with Shylock quietly moaning, almost as if in pain, with each cup of water covering his head as betrays his faith to keep his life. Powerful and shocking.

The staging is quite simple but very effective with a grille backdrop boxing in the centre of the stage for most of the play to represent Venice with sections opening as doors and windows. This changes with the addition of a gauzy silken curtain coming out from the sides to represent Portia's home in Belmont. Bits of furniture are carried out for some scenes, such as tables with elaborate boxes for Portia's suitors to choose (only one casket holds her portrait) and chairs for the final court scene.

The cast were excellent and, as you'd expect, Jonathan Pryce was a powerful Shylock with his real life daughter, Phoebe Pryce, playing his daughter Jessica in the play. She had a nice presence, wild and rebellious with her father and sweetly romantic with Lorenzo, her lover. David Sturzaker was great fun as Gratiano with his one-liners and comic gestures, just like any young man who thinks too much of himself. I also liked Rachel Pickup at Portia going through a whole range of emotions when dealing with her suitors and quietly confident playing the young doctor of law, especially that moment of inspiration when she announces that Shylock may have his his pound of flesh, but only the flesh. Dorothea Myer-Bennett was also great as Nerissa, Portia's hand-maiden with some great comic timing and sardonic looks. I'd also single out Stefan Adegbola as the daft servant Launcelot - can this be the same actor I saw in 'Widower's Houses' earlier this year? He was great fun and full of devil may care energy!

This play is a masterpiece of storytelling with some great set piece speeches ('The quality of mercy...') and this production is excellent. If you're in London (and it's not raining) then you could do a lot worse than head on down to the Globe to see it.

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