The Merchant of Venice
Frank Kaye | 30 Jul 2018 10:16am
Mayhem’s production of The Merchant of Venice is everything an English outdoor Shakespeare is expected to be. It is in a wonderful setting in the Italian Gardens of Cannizaro Park and the weather on the final night did what English weather is prone to do – turned a bit too cold for some audience members to make it to the second half. The cast and creative team are experienced and, in most cases, have trained in drama so the ingredients for a fine production are there. In the early scenes the cast stay visible before and after dynamic entrances and exits from the stage like Indian Kathakali theatre which bodes well for a young, modern performance.
The director, Matt Bentley, in his notes makes much reference to the play being “bizarre” and “odd” in its structure. He has produced for his audience a show that remains both bizarre and odd. I am sure I read somewhere that he was aiming to find “as much humour as possible” in the play but I can no longer find the reference. That said the show does succeed in finding the humour where Shakespeare put it.
The audience are suitably amused especially by Leon Hernandez’ characterisations of the suitors and Old Gobbo, delighted by Maria Jones as Launcelot who owns the stage and controls the pace whenever she is on, stimulated by Kat Novkovic and Sophie Shrimpton’s as the Salads “prancing about the stage” (their words) and completely captivated by Freddie Wride as Gratiano as he delivers throughout on his opening big speech, “Let me play the fool”. They are also treated to lovely comic performances by Victoria Shepherd and Jamie Miller-Hughes as Portia and Nerissa beginning with the descriptions of the suitors ably supported by Kelly Marie-Ridgers as Balthazar with clever audience involvement using an empty picture frame. The comedy does become somewhat bizarre with the introduction of a giant monkey and the dressing up of a bewildered Tubal. The big comedy finish works well drawing Russell Hughes’ Bassanio into the fun and ending with a huge flourish as Gratiano jumps onto the small stage and reaches for the night sky.
Another aspect of the show that works well is the romance of the setting especially in the second half with the clever use of local lights which are installed in the interval. Ben Jones’ Lorenzo opposite Ashiana Pradhan’s strongly played Jessica brings real power to the “on such a night” sequence (they may even have had a real moon on the opening night!) A major technical issue with outdoor production is sound and the solution used here of miking each actor individually and turning them up only when speaking works beautifully.
The Merchant of Venice is in many ways one of Shakespeare’s most challenging for any director. He must make strategic decisions about what he wants the play to achieve and he must deliver on this strategy through his cast and creative team. In this case choosing to go for comedy means the audience go home satisfied with an amusing evening in a beautiful setting but for me (and perhaps for those cold people who went home at half time) there was something missing. An explanation is that a focus on humour emphasises the minor parts and minimises the principle parts. All the four big parts of Bassanio, Shylock, Portia and Antonio(a) are played perfectly competently and all the famous speeches are clear and well-articulated. But a comic focus elsewhere leaves these characters in a sort of no-man’s land with no anchor for their objectives. Why does Antonio make such a bond for Bassanio? – the potential homosexual motive is lost with the casting of Antonio as a woman and the actors show no depth of feeling for each other at any stage. Why does Jessica leave Shylock and convert to Christianity? Is the play about anti-Semitism or is Shylock just a horrible angry man upset by the loss of his wife (signalled by her ring being traded by Jessica for a monkey but somewhat lost in the comedy of the Tubal scene). Bassanio’s story is what drives the plot of the play, so the audience need to get under the skin of his personality and motives to make the play work. His relationships with Antonio and Portia need more substance. Portia’s part is the biggest in the play (as written – not sure after whatever dramaturgical edits were made) and the most difficult to get right. Victoria is a little unsteady on her words at times, but this does not detract from her competent performance.
What does detract from her performance and indeed that of the whole cast though is the staging of the trial scene. The Duke is placed facing upstage on an upturned crate on the audience side of a piece of staging with a light illuminating her white wig. The entire scene is played with Portia behind the staging, mostly in shadow. She oscillates between Antonio and Shylock who are placed in their own lights at the extreme up-stage corners. The quality of mercy is strained beyond breaking point! The performances of Shylock and Antonio are also hampered and muted with no real tension built as the cutting out of the heart approaches. Shylock is in complete shadow as he submits to his fate. Ironically it is the comic bits of this scene that work best with Shylock’s scales becoming a joke for measuring the weight of Antonio’s heart rather than symbolic of the scales of justice.
The part of Shylock is very complex and George Still gives a consistent performance. His big speeches feel a bit political and philosophical with the only moment of real passion where he tells Antonio he will have his bond to open the second half. Some other moments veer dangerously towards the pantomimic though thankfully never straying quite that far.
Adrienne Power as a female Merchant is fine but is not played or dressed in a feminine manner. The costumes throughout do the job without trying to be any period in particular.
Although the Italian Garden appears initially to be an ideal setting for this play, in practice the use of space is not ideal with much of the seated audience too far removed from the action. There is in fact a big acting area in the centre of the audience space that could easily have been used to set the play in the round – as it is, it is only used for the casket scene. The staging is hardly used at all which given the obvious power of Gratiano’s final flourish is such a waste.
A final challenge to the director and producers from this reviewer is the decision to have no music whatsoever, save the somewhat ironic Walkin’ on Sunshine for the walk down. Given the three direct references by Shakespeare to the use of music in this play along with myriad other opportunities and the fact that the Mayhem Sardines entry states that the company’s performed genre is musical Shakespeare, I feel somewhat let down. The concept of a party atmosphere described in the director’s notes and Shakespeare’s references to masques on the night of Jessica’s elopement are surely sufficient to provoke the use of music and even to start the play with music and dancing and the actors greeting each other in the centre of the space – not remotely at the back of the acting area.
Overall, this is a competently acted, dynamic show with a strong sense of ensemble. At no stage does it lose momentum. The director thanks the cast in the programme for “being willing to go along with his crazy schemes” and I think the audience probably has sufficient fun to make this a diverting experience beyond a simple picnic in a lovely setting.
- : admin
- : 28/07/2018