ADC Mainshow, 7.45pm 23rd-27th February
The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s most complex and captivating comedy, sees Antonio (Ned Carpenter) borrow a large sum of money from Shylock (Theo Chester), the Jew whom he has publically berated, on behalf of friend Bassanio (Luke Rajah), whom he is desperate to please. Shylock lends the money on the condition that if it is not returned, he will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Sophia Sibthorpe) has rejected her father and his Jewish faith, eloping with the Christian Lorenzo (Rob Willoughby) from Venice to Belmont. Bassanio uses the money Antonio gives him to go to Belmont, where he tries to court the beautiful, rich and intelligent Portia (Antonia Eklund), whose deceased father has set out the challenge of the three caskets to any man who tries to marry his daughter. Bassanio succeeds in choosing the right casket, so he and Portia can be married, but is immediately presented with a letter to say that Antonio cannot pay Shylock’s money back, and that the Jew is insisting on his compensation of the pound of flesh. Bassanio returns to Venice to try to help Antonio. Portia and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Eve Hedderwick Turner) follow them to Venice, concealed as law clerks, in order to save the life of their husbands’ friend.
This production opens, as the posters promise, in a smoky 1930s Italian jazz bar. The vibrant yet simple sets, beautifully designed by David Pugh, continue to stun throughout the production. Whilst the visuals consistently reflect the choice of period, there is little else done to indicate that the production has an interest with Mussolini’s Italy. This makes the explicitly anti-Semetic jokes from Salarino and Solanio (John Haidar and Toby Jones) at the end of Act II feel unnecessary, out of place and really uncomfortable. The production should have been bolder with its setting to avoid this awkward atmosphere.This timidity of ideas causes problems throughout the production, resulting in a feeling that more could have been done to fulfil director Patrick Garety’s potentially interesting and entertaining vision of the play.
Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship, one of Shakespeare’s more explicitly homoerotic friendships, lacked conviction in performance; Carpenter failed to convey the crucial adoration and sexual tension. As a result, the character disappears into the background, and the effect of having Antonio sitting alone at the end of the play, having watched Bassanio exit with his beloved wife, is entirely lost. This homoeroticism seems to have been deflected in the production onto Portia and Nerissa. Eklund and Hedderwick Turner share too much physical contact, which not only undermines the importance of physical closeness in the performance, but also becomes quite boring.
Eklund’s portrayal of Portia epitomises the fault in the production. Despite Portia being arguably Shakespeare’s most intelligent, autonomous female character, for the first three acts Eklund renders her as an excitable bimbo. The change, therefore, in her character once she is disguised as a man is too vast. Even when dressed as a woman again at the end, the Portia seen in the second half is irreconcilable with the Portia in the first half. In neglecting the importance of Portia’s composure and manipulative intelligence, the production loses another one of the most essential ideas of the play.
All in all, whilst it is ambitious in its vision, this production fails to hit the mark and, despite its brilliant aesthetics, is a washout from the start.