Review: The Merchant of Venice

ANNA SHEINMAN applauds ‘acting… so clear you could probably get the plot if you were deaf, let alone not that comfortable with Shakespeare’.

Patrick Garety Rob Willoughby Shakespeare Sophia Sibthorpe The Merchant of Venice

Tuesday 23rd – Saturday 27th. 7.45 with a 2.30 matinee on Saturday at The ADC Theatre. £6.9. 

Directed by Patrick Garety. 

The lights rose on a woman in peacock blue singing sultry jazz to a live piano, in a smoky, run down bar. Gentlemen in pinstripe trousers and bowler hats drowned their sorrows and piled up their debts with tumblers of whiskey and endless cigarettes. ‘Filmic’ cannot begin describe how gorgeous this production was. From the ornate furnishings of Portia’s stately home, and the spiffy suits and glamorous dresses, to the dank sparseness of Shylock’s office and the uniformed formality of the Venetian fascist court, not to mention the beautiful cast, the whole play looked so yummy I wanted to eat it all up. But as the Prince of Morocco famously reminds us in this show “all that glisters is not gold”. Basically, something can look great and still be rubbish. Happily for Patrick Garety and his talented cast, this was far from the case on Tuesday night at the ADC.

For those who haven’t already studied this particular work of the Bard for GCSE, here’s what happens. Fit girl called Portia’s rich Dad dies, and his will says she can only marry the guy that chooses the right chest of three, one gold, one silver, one lead. Bassanio really fancies Portia, but has no money to make the journey to have a go, so good guy Antonio says he’ll guarantee a loan from nasty Jewish moneylender Shylock. Shylock’s a meany, and it’s all very difficult, but basically whoever is young, Christian and in love wins in the end. Ah yes, I should mention the Jewish thing.

Photos: Tim Johns –

This production makes the not unusual, but still effective choice to set the play in 1930s fascist Italy to highlight its famous anti-Semitism. The hostility is palpable: Shylock is cornered on the street by suited thugs, the court scene was vicious, with Shylock sharpening a knife throughout, and there is a token joke about big noses. Theo Chester’s tight lipped, sour faced, cold, controlled Shylock gave real humanity to a character often played more like an ogre, and this subtle approach rekindled the old debate on what Will Shakespeare was trying to say. Does he hate the Jews? Or is he mocking the people that hate the Jews? Great stuff. Only complaint is that given that everyone else was perfectly cast looks wise (Portia really is hot, the servant is black, Bassanio is a rugger bugger, Jessica has loads of dark curly hair) their Shylock was the most Aryan I’ve ever seen.

Reservations on nose size aside, this was a seriously slick production. Ned Carpenter (Antonio) was clearly made for Shakespeare, he spoke iambic pentameter as fluently as if he was chatting to mates in the pub. I forgive Antonia Eklund as Portia for showing first night nerves with a few fluffed lines and going too fast sometimes for her great girly gossipy scene with her maid Narissa, and just for being so darn beautiful. Granted Luke Rajah as Bassanio the romantic lead only had one move: shaking someone by the shoulder, but Bassanio is supposed to be a bit simple anyway, so I think they got away with that one.

I’m picking holes. It was fantastic. The story flowed perfectly. The physical acting was so clear you could probably get the plot if you were deaf, let alone not that comfortable with Shakespeare. The staging was clever, dynamic, never lazy. Big group scenes had tonnes of energy, and when it gets all girly and soppy at the end you feel all gooey inside. Young lovers played by Rob Willoughby and Sophia Sibthorpe actually had chemistry (that never happens in a student production) and parts were funny, funny, funny. Harry Carr’s geeky Launcelot made the audience yelp with laughter. Girls: go because it’s basically a really good chick flick. Boys: go because, have I mentioned Portia is fit? Everyone else, go see it because it’s great.