Saturday, 20 June 2015

Theatre review: The Merchant of Venice (RSC / RST)

With three productions of The Merchant of Venice in the same year it might be difficult for each one to establish its own identity, but they've managed it; Polly Findlay's at the RSC does so by stripping everything back to the bare essentials, both of text and staging. One thing that isn't pared down though is the story's homoerotic potential: Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is the wealthy titular merchant, Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) his young friend, and with Findlay showing the pair kissing from the outset, it's clear they're more than just friends, and there's a reason Antonio is so smitten he'd do anything to help him. Anything including signing a decidedly dodgy bond to guarantee a loan on Bassanio's behalf: He's been openly abusive to Jewish moneylender Shylock (Makram J. Khoury,) but to finance Bassanio's get-rich-quick scheme Antonio agrees to forfeit a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay the debt. It's impossible for all his outstanding investments to fail at the same time - except of course they all do.

Meanwhile that get-rich-quick scheme involves an heiress whose father has left the fate of her marriage and fortune to a lottery straight out of a fairytale. It's only last year that Patsy Ferran was a scene-stealer in a small role in Blithe Spirit, but already she's in the ascendant enough to be playing a role as high-profile as Portia in Stratford.

And she's a particularly likeable Portia, partly down to her performance although she's helped a lot by some of the text cuts removing much of the character's most extreme bigotry. Gone, for instance, is her wish that all dark-skinned suitors fail like the Prince of Morocco (Ken Nwosu.) In fact Nwosu also plays Gratiano (as part of the stripped-back aesthetic he changes characters in sight of the audience,) who'll end up marrying her servant and friend Nerissa (Nadia Albina.)

There's no similar whitewashing of Antonio; the production is modern-dress (I couldn't really get behind Anette Guther's costume designs, not sure what to make of some of the horrible trainers and coats on display) but doesn't go too high-concept in trying to explain the open antisemitism. Antonio is shown as impulsively full of rage, Bassanio trying to stop him from his self-destructive viciousness towards the man he's trying to borrow money from. When this almost comes back to bite him in the final scene, Findlay makes the interesting choice not to have Antonio already restrained; instead Ballard has to walk, emotionally crumbling, to what appears to be the scene of his own death.

Khoury is meanwhile a sympathetic Shylock - even in the particularly nasty scene where he bemoans the loss of his money more than his daughter, he makes it seem more like misplaced grief. On Johannes Schutz's stark set of gold panels on the stage floor and back wall, Jessica (Scarlett Brookes) peering over the top of the walls has a feel of Rapunzel in her tower. Less successful is the way a choir of children occasionally pop their heads over the same parapet, with an unintentionally comic effect. But while we're long past defining this play as a straightforward comedy, some lighter moments still work well: Ferran's Portia unsubtly tries to guide Bassanio to the right box, a choice I'm surprised we don't see more often; that scene's made even funnier when Nwosu's Gratiano misses the hints entirely and tries to steer his friend to the gold casket.

There are elements of this Merchant of Venice that don't quite work; it's probably not going to end up one of the most memorable takes ever and Findlay has swept some of the play's problems under the carpet rather than confront them, especially where Portia's dark side is concerned. But for all that's sacrificed there's also gains in making this a short, smooth and clearly-told production.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 2nd of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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