The European Theatre Group return to the ADC with their Merchant of Venice and it is clear they have benefited from the opportunities to develop and refine the performance during their international tour. A strong and cohesive cast starts their home run justifiably confident in their contemporary adaptation, which sees Shakespeare’s tale of prejudice, revenge and love transposed to 21st century Naples. The humour brought out in doing so puts paid to any questions as to whether the play can rightly be considered a comedy.
From the opening sequence, characters bursting through drapes covered in the best-known logos of modern capitalism to dance to Europop, it was clear the new setting would mean additions to the original play, but these never came at the expense of pace and fluidity, nor did they obscure the power of the verse. Innovations such as turning the suitors’ choice of a casket into a ‘Deal or No Deal’-style gameshow and making the ultimate trial a television interview reminiscent of Jeremy Kyle brought out themes of subjective justice and the power of popular opinion, and the objectification of Kay Dent’s Portia seemed uncomfortably appropriate for Berlusconi’s Italy.
Guy Woolf took full advantage of what is arguably the greatest opportunity in the play as the antihero Shylock, with a captivating performance eliciting sympathy- or at least understanding- far removed from the lazy anti-Semitism the script could encourage. Shylock’s isolation was a powerful counterpoint to the other characters, the strength of whom came in their pairings. These included Antonio and Bassanio, whose affections at times diverged endearingly from the strictly platonic, and Portia and her maid Nerissa, a formidable coupling which lead one audience member to remark, “I thought their husbands were going to get strung up!” Rosie Brown’s Salarina and Tania Clarke’s Salania deserve particular mention, transforming two otherwise forgettable minor roles into a simultaneously hilarious and repulsive embodiment of Eurotrash culture, and successfully enlivening potentially arduous moments of plot exposition. Only Leonardo and Jessica seemed to inhabit the stage a little less fully, and this is perhaps a symptom of their characters being less easily transferred to the modern setting.
Spotlights did not always find those they were intended for perfectly, but technicalities were otherwise well thought-out and slick, with pink lending an appropriate air of artificiality to Belmont and a soundtrack of club music covering already slick scene changes.
This production was my first encounter with The Merchant of Venice. It should give some indication of its quality to say that the setting could easily have been the original.