“From the Rialto to Little Venice, W9, is neat”
Were Antonio at work today, this stacked play would be even trickier than it already is. He’d be talking about moving cargo rather than sailing ships. His wealth would be in metal boxes to Singapore or Mumbai rather than argosies from Venice. Nevertheless, reassuringly, his sound advice to Bassanio would be the same: “Go, presently inquire where money is”. That would send the enterprising lover to Shylock, who would have friends and funds in Frankfurt and away we go.
However, in this production when Shylock asks “What news from Germany?” (that’s Genoa back then), the context shifts mightily. For now we’re back to September 1939 and the news ain’t good. In fact if you’re Jewish it has been desperate. Director Rae Glasman finds a choice text in Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war:
“Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”
That’s not Shakespeare but it works. For a start, which God: Christian or Jewish? Who is the more righteous: backscratching Bassanio, Jew-baiting Gratiano, or is it Antonio, who spits at Shylock in the street? Is it merciful or just to condemn Shylock to near ruin and to force him to convert? Portia, if always an unlikely victim, will find happiness in marriage. There is a happy and flimsy ending, which is why – I suppose – Glasman has that radio broadcast at the end of the play, to make her audience ask what exactly has prevailed here? Actually, I would have welcomed that mooring at the start. There’s the trouble with The Merchant of Venice; it goes all over the place: scenically, tonally, action-wise. Underwhelming and overwhelming.
From the Rialto to the City of London and to Little Venice, W9, is still neat. Portia’s Belmont is relocated to a country house, somewhere in the Chilterns, I guess. That is not a displacement too far but it looked hard to accommodate on the Roxy’s stage. I found the opening and drawing of the full length curtains in-between scenes more distracting than helpful and it’s a No-thank you to the squealing Downton maids at open-the-box time. The Glen Miller sound was melodious though and the cocktail cabinet and fetching evening wear did their elegant, idle, thing well enough.
As do Bassanio’s set of chaps. Portia (Isobel Moulder) sees them – and quite possibly all men – as “bragging Jacks” to be practised upon, which this marble-mouthed lot certainly deserve. She is also properly merciless in the court, where otherwise the languor of the club rooms seemed to have carried over. To supply Bassanio (Will Fairhead) with an Eton education and braces was presumably to allow him to stand nonchalantly, hands in pockets, between the caskets and to give him the manners, surely the compassion, to pick up Shylock’s yarmulke from the floor and to give it back.
I could believe in Shylock (Joe Shaw) as a broken father. “My daughter is my flesh”, he says, and then Jessica abandons him – or is stolen from him. His hair should have been greyer but it is no surprise when – to take like for like – he would cut into a spent Antonio (Pedro Leandro) above his heart. There is real pain in that vengeful effort.
There are laughs in the features and antics of preposterous suitors, Arragon and Morocco, and in the crazy work of Lucy Gobbo (Chaz Watson) who sounds like the ‘wauling bagpipe’ of Shylock’s protest and who looks way too bad for Emil and the Detectives.
Rory McIvor as Lorenzo spoke the (blank) verse best and did Moonlight Serenade introduce his scene with Jessica near the close? I can’t recall. I do remember approving Bassanio’s choice of the lead casket, for ‘Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence’, which is where I stand on this production. It looks pretty and sounds attractive but its necessary centre of gravity is away, awry.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 10 March)
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