Review: The Merchant of Venice

Image credit: Ed Bankes

A play with ducats, daughters, and a pound of flesh entered into  bargains of love, courtship, fatherly dominance, and ideals on justice, 'The Merchant of Venice' is one of Shakespeare’s well-known plays and needs no introduction. Set against the backdrop of Venice, the narrative of the play centres on the ways three love affairs intertwine and all come to depend on fleet success - or failure - as the aforementioned bargains are made. Pledges of ‘three thousand ducats’, ‘a pound of flesh’ and ‘a trifle’ of a diamond ring, wrap the plot in witty exchanges with concurrent darker undertones of antisemitism, biased justice systems, and oppressed women struggling for liberation.

However, 'The Merchant of Venice' contains all the elements of Shakespearean comedy which were performed excellently to cause much laughter and amusement amongst the audience. Portia (as played by Laura Pujos), and Nerissa (Alice Jay) captured the female characters with skill and humour as they showed the oppression of males, struggles for love and natural desires that opposes the commercial tone of the play. Their scenes with the choosing of the chest – gold, silver, or lead – were very well enacted and the use of technology and visuals aided this with super-imposed screen images and uses of a Nintendo DS to both offer clear representation of the chest challenge and bring the setting of the play to the modern stage.

The modernisation of the play was, on the whole, done well; however there were inconsistencies in the dating as to how far it was meant to reflect today’s society for although the use of technology was clearly updated, the costumes didn’t match this tone. There were a few first-night ‘teething’ difficulties with other aspects of the technological managing of the play too – the safety curtain and back-drops came up and down at bizarre and seemingly uncoordinated and unplanned moments. However this is not to take away at all from the phenomenal set.

Although lacking the planned presence of water, there still was water on-stage in certain parts and the entire set construction was absolutely incredible. A true reflection of Venetian Italy with its board walks, bridges, wooden planks and little nooks and crannies built into the wood allowing for opening drawbridges into Shylock’s chambers. The scenes using Shylock’s chambers were very effectively done and added an entirely different dimension to the actions; both in literal physicality and tone of the drama.

The play's antisemitism was handled sensitively and  brought up to date. Not only were light and music used to emphasise the isolation of the outcast Jew, but also laughter and mockery were also profitably used. The most commendable performance was that of Megan Gilbert as Shylock; she fantastically captured the character, channeling raw emotion into the scenes depicting her common humanity as she asks "if you prick [Jews], do we not bleed"? and also in later scenes showing the injustice of the court case in its judgement upon her discontinuation of religious practice and belief. The play ended upon this note of conversion as the sorrowful lingering chant of Christian prayer echoed about the auditorium, reminding the audience that although Shakespeare’s comic resolution had been fulfilled with marriage, union, and joyous festivities, the darker presence of injustice and prejudice lingered and ‘not all’s well that end’s well.’

Overall, this was a performance with an overarching brilliance of acting and set which created a truly innovative adaptation of Shakespeare’s treasured original.


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