A slightly disappointing production with forced intentions, redeemed by a strong company and performances from Patsy Ferran and Jamie Ballard.
When you think of the Merchant of Venice, the one name that generally springs to mind is Shylock. Either that or Portia (particularly if you’re a female drama student). Strangely though, it is not Antonio – the merchant, who is the cause of most of the happenings in the play – that you think of. Certainly in the recent Globe’s production, the memorable character is Shylock, partly because he was played by Jonathan Pryce, who performed the character with mastery very few actors have.
Polly Findlay’s production is centred around Antonio, the merchant, which in theory makes a lot of sense. However the decision to play his friendship with Bassanio as a gay love affair feels forced out of the text and confusing at times, both for the audience and the characters. Once Bassanio marries Portia, before the end of the first act, you end up with a very bizarre love triangle, meaning that the play feels unfinished and unresolved.
The past few productions in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre have been very literal and naturalistic (the Loman house in Death of a Salesman; the recreation of Charlecote Park for the Love’s Labour’s Plays etc) but this production goes in a very different direction. Having the floor and a wall under the proscenium as a giant mirror opens up the theatre and the stage feels very exposed. It isn’t cluttered with set and props, and as much as I enjoy that in a show, it is a nice change at the RSC.
However, the few props and pieces of set aren’t particularly necessary. It is unclear what the large swinging ball is meant to represent. Presumably it is a pendulum, but is it for Antonio’s time ticking away to pay Shylock? Why then doesn’t it stop in the court scene? Or is it for Portia’s time ticking away to find a husband (she is after all the one who sets it off)? If so, why doesn’t it stop swinging when she marries Bassanio? Is it to do with Bassanio’s relationship with Antonio, meaning he doesn’t really love Portia and she hasn’t found a true husband?
Despite the time they spend clearing the stage of several thousand euros (thrown around the stage in the court scene), and then covering it in 40 or so candles, this production is led by a very strong company of actors. Patsy Ferran’s Portia and Jamie Ballard’s Antonio are standout performances capturing the struggles and success of their characters. Ferran plays a Portia that is strong minded and intelligent, so in love with Bassanio that his relationship with Antonio is threatening to her. The plot focusing on Antonio gives Ballard the opportunity to flesh out his character more than in a traditionally played version of the play. His worry and his love for Bassanio grows through the performance and he is stunning in the court scene, particularly as Shylock goes to cut his pound of flesh.
However with Antonio, Bassanio and Portia’s storyline becoming the focus, it leaves Shylock and Jessica trailing behind slightly. Whether it is the production or Makram J. Khoury’s performance that makes this Shylock seem to be primarily villainous is unclear, and there is not much sympathy to be felt when he is forced to turn Christian. Jessica spends most of the first act at the top of the proscenium, above the set, shouting down to Shylock, so there is no father/daughter relationship established and therefore it is unclear that she steals from him.
This production obviously had one aspect of the play it wanted to concentrate on, and although this is executed well, the rest of the play falls slightly flat. It is however an interesting production that is very different from past RSC (like the famous’ Merchant of Vegas’) and classically portrayed versions of this slightly bizarre Shakespeare play.
Review by Elliott Wallis
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a comedy probably written between 1596 and 1598.
Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, lends three thousand ducats to his friend Bassanio in order to assist him in his wooing of the wealthy and beautiful Portia of Belmont, an estate some distance from Venice.
Antonio’s own money is tied up in business ventures that depend on the safe return of his ships from sea, so he borrows the money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender whom he has previously insulted for his high rates of interest.
Shylock lends the money against a bond. Failure to repay the loan on the agreed date will entitle Shylock to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
The Merchant of Venice | Synopsis | Royal Shakespeare Company
Cast and Creatives
Nadia Albina – Nerissa
David Ajao – Singer/Citizen of Venice
Jamie Ballard – Antonio
Scarlett Brookes – Jessica
James Corrigan – Lorenzo
Eva Feiler – Lady/Attendant
Patsy Ferran – Portia (pictured)
Owen Findlay – Salerio
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd – Bassanio
Guy Hughes – Singer/Citizen of Venice
Makram J Khoury – Shylock
Rina Mahoney – Portia’s Servant/Duke of Venice
Ken Nwosu – Gratiano/Morocco
Brian Protheroe – Aragon
Jay Saighal – Solanio
Tim Samuels – Launcelot Gobbo/Tubal
Director – Polly Findlay
Set designer – Johannes Schütz
Costume designer – Anette Guther
Lighting – Peter Mumford
Music – Marc Tritschler
Sound – Gareth Fry
Movement – Aline David
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
14th May to 2nd September 2015