Sunday, 3 May 2015

Theatre review: The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare's Globe)

My second (though not my last) Merchant of Venice of 2015 is one of the tent poles of the "Justice and Mercy" theme in this year's Globe season. Already deep into debt, Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) believes marrying a wealthy heiress - who also happens to love him - will solve all his money problems. But in order to get to Portia (Rachel Pickup) and the eccentric conditions under which she has to choose a husband, he needs another loan. His merchant friend Antonio (Dominic Mafham,) confident of his investments paying out soon, is willing to secure the loan from Jewish moneylender Shylock (Jonathan Pryce.) But while Venetian society as a whole is openly prejudiced against the Jews who keeps its business running, Shylock has always found Antonio's behaviour particularly egregious. As a gesture of his power over him, he gets the merchant to sign a clause allowing him to cut a pound of flesh from his body if he defaults on payment.

But when Shylock's daughter elopes with a Christian friend of Bassanio's the loan becomes an even more personal matter. When Antonio's ships sink, taking his money with them, the pound of flesh is demanded for real. Even Portia's money can't save him, but her wits might.

Although not one of the trio originally identified as Problem Plays, certainly in the last century it's been hard to view The Merchant of Venice as a pure comedy. Jonathan Munby's production makes no bones about the treatment of Jews like animals in Venice, but it also makes it clear that Shylock's violent recourse against Antonio stems from him, quite genuinely, behaving even worse than everyone else. But the production's darkest moments are saved for the religious conversions: This is clearly what hurts Shylock the most, and the show's earlier speedy pace leaves Munby time for an unhappy coda to the play. Jessica's (Phoebe Pryce) conversion may have been voluntary, and her marriage to Lorenzo (Ben Lamb) clearly the happiest of the three in the play, but she too is shown as having paid a price for her happiness.

Although the play hardly provides the most raucous comedy in the canon, what there is is well dealt-with here as well. There seems to have been a lot of attention paid to detail and character, giving each scene its own flavour and keeping things moving satisfyingly along: David Sturzaker is a Mercutio-esque Gratiano, introduced with a hangover and throwing up into a bucket (ah, the days when Jade Williams would have just chundered onto the groundlings.) Christopher Logan throws subtlety to the wind for an outrageous Prince of Arragon. And most memorably, Lancelot Gobbo's speech introduces some extreme audience participation when Stefan Adegbola gets a couple of groundlings up to play the fiend and conscience battling over him.

Pickup's isn't the most impactful of Portias, with Dorothea Myer-Bennett's Nerissa stealing their scenes together. And without a strong conceit for the final act, its anticlimactic nature (after a tensely-staged courtroom scene) is all too apparent. But if it doesn't redefine The Merchant of Venice this is still a strong production that doesn't let a play about financial dealings drag.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 7th of June at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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