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A Merchant of Venice at The Playground Theatre

Bassanio loves Portia, Antonio gets off by the skin of his teeth, and Shylock is still the villain: it is all there, yet this new production of the Shakespearean classic does not rise to the occasion where other shows have done.

Peter Tate (Skylock) - A Merchant Of Venice - The Playground Theatre - © Guy Bell.
Peter Tate (Skylock) – A Merchant Of Venice – The Playground Theatre – © Guy Bell.

The plot is a classic Shakespearean plot, which is to say it is stolen from somewhere else (I am not joking, look it up). Bassanio needs money; Antonio loans it from Shylock, the moneylender. If the money is not reimbursed, Shylock is entitled to a ‘pound of flesh’ belonging to Antonio, Antonio’s money is in ships; I will let you work out how things turn out.

As the title may have suggested, this is a slightly new take on the bard’s classic play, and a lot has been cut to create an up-tempo retelling. Dramatically re-working Shakespeare is a bold venture; Shakespeare is good; I hope we agree on that. I understand a want to keep the plot snappy and the tempo pacey, but some of the best moments have been sliced, including the entire plotline of Launcelot Gobbo. A strange omission given that he brings clown-like humour to an otherwise serious play. Even when the cuts are meant to keep the plot moving, there are still scenes that drag with an unnecessary pace.

To Bill Alexander’s (director) credit, the production presents Bassanio, Antonio and Gratiano as self-obsessed, arrogant, smug narcissists, and Shylock is the most sympathetic character, a choice rarely made by directors. This is made clear by the plays focus on persistent anti-Semitism. That being said, towards the end of the play, as is in the text, one character spits on Shylock. This gesture of a goy spitting on a Jew is one with such enormous significance and vile disrespect that the throwaway manner in which it was done did not respect the impact it carries.

The design choices threw me off. Lighting was consistently very dramatic, often overly so. This, combined with a strangely colourful sound design, set it up to be a melodrama that did not deliver. Modernising Shakespearean text is a steep hill to climb. While there were moments when some performers brought it to life, I was sorely disappointed by this attempt to liven up a play I am not sure needed livening up.

2 gold stars

Review by Tom Carter

Within Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice lies an inner play about a small network of relationships, one that wrestles with Justice and Mercy, Marriage and Money, Race and Class, one that, in essence, explores the tortured nature of Love.

This new version of the play focuses on six key characters whose entangled loves, desires and fortunes hinge on a better understanding of themselves and their relation to each other in the blackly comic world of a modern-day Venice.

A MERCHANT OF VENICE
The Playground Theatre
Presented by Shakespeare in Italy
Adapted & directed by Bill Alexander
Designs by Sara Perks
Lighting by Ryan Day
Sound by Sarah Sayeed

Cast
Mary Chater – Solania
Alexander Knox – Bassanio
John McAndrew – Antonio
Lena Robin – Portia
Peter Tate – Shylock
Alex Wilson – Gratiano
Dates: 10 November – 4 December 2021
https://theplaygroundtheatre.london/

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