The Merchant of Venice

Tue 16th – Sat 20th May 2017

reviews

Clare Cavenagh

at 16:43 on 17th May 2017

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Please don't tell my supervisors, but I've never read The Merchant of Venice. I'd never even seen it before (save a snippet of this production which delightfully interrupted my English Faculty Library revision session on 'Shakespeare Day'). My first experience of it did not disappoint. It's filled with contradictions and conflicts, by turns compassionate, bullying, hilarious, tragic, and yes, sometimes cartoonishly racist. The European Theatre Group have done something great by embracing all of these colours, not trying to round off the play's troubling edges. Their production is skillful and enjoyable, but almost always challenging.

The lack of rounded edges in this production meant that the show was almost devoid of 'goodies', at least in the simplistic sense. The characters involved in the love-plot were charming and fun in their independent scenes, but highly disturbing in their anti-Semitic interactions with Shylock. The fact that both sets of action were performed in the same tone - raucous, roguish and fun-loving - served to push the audience's discomfort even further, assuring them that they were witnessing the same characters charmingly flirt with one another, and spit in Shylock's face. Shylock herself (in this production) was equally challenging. The hard-going scenes of her victimisation made the audience sympathetic, but they were nevertheless unable to pretend that she seemed like a nice person. Difficult, too, were the sections where Shakespeare's play seems to slip into two-dimensional racist tropes.

As uncomfortable, even as personally insulting as many audience members may have found this, the uncompromising approach taken by this production, directed by Myles O'Gorman, was its strength. Every scene felt heightened because the play refused to ever let the audience off the hook. The romance-plot scenes were more delightful because they provided a release from the tougher-going elements. Scenes from the bond-plot were genuinely upsetting (I count this as a good thing) because they presented the horrific treatment of a character who sought to treat others horrifically. Rather than feeling embarrassed or scared of the trickiness of this play, the production embraced it, and that was challenging, but also very satisfying.

A key part of this strength was Megan Gilbert's performance as a female Shylock (not making assumptions here - all characters altered their pronouns). Gilbert portrayed Shylock as fiercely independent, with a deep ruthlessness which seemed to come from a lifetime of forced, grudging loneliness and self-sufficiency. Her Shylock was clever and defiant, but also frightening and sometimes pitiful. Megan Gilbert should be immensely proud.

Actors in far smaller parts also stood out, most notably Alice Jay and Mollie Semple. Jay played Portia's woman Nerissa in such a lively and engaging way that it was difficult to look elsewhere when she was onstage. Semple stood in for two characters, Old Gobbo and Tubal, and was especially impressive as the former, putting in a highly energetic, and hugely entertaining performance. The actors all did an excellent job, save for a couple of stumbles which were no doubt mostly due to opening-night jitters.

The action took place within one of the most detailed sets which I have ever seen at the ADC, designed by Lydia Clark. With canals full of real water at the front of the stage, a towering Venetian bridge under which Shylock's house was tucked at the back, and an effectively-used thrust-platform set among the first few rows of seats, there was plenty to look at, and plenty of distinct spaces to use. Some of the moving parts of the set proved a little hard to control (the Safety Curtain was a little unruly and uppity), but this didn't really take away from the great achievement of the design and construction.

The Merchant of Venice is a complicated play, and the European Theatre Group have created a complicated production to match. Go along and enjoy the challenge, the difficulty, the great performances and the fantastic set design. Plus, if you're revising for the Shakespeare paper, it counts as studying.

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