The Merchant of Venice

ABI BENNETT finds that this ‘Eurotrash’ Shakespeare actually makes sense…

Abi Bennett ADC celine lowenthal Merchant of Venice Theatre

ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Tue 15th – Sat 19th January,  Tue, Wed & mat £8/£6, Thu-Sat £10/£8

Directed by Celine Lowenthal

There’s something about ETG that leads directors to think they must have a ‘concept’. It’s not enough simply to do a good production of their chosen play; it must be relocated to a specific time period or done in the style of a certain film director.

These ‘concepts’ are, almost without exception, unsuccessful. They add little to our understanding or interpretation of the play, instead just muddying the characters and plot. It seems that, once they’ve decided on their ‘concept’, directors believe their job is done, and the rest of the nitty gritty, the actual bones of the production, can be left to the actors.

So I was slightly concerned last night when I discovered that Celine Lowenthal’s Merchant of Venice was to be set in a modern day Venice, populated with brand-obsessed, cap-wearing, gum-chewing Eurotrash. But this concern proved unfounded: this was the first ‘concept’ Shakespeare I’ve seen that actually made sense.

What surprised me most was how funny the production was. The Merchant of Venice is hardly Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, yet Lowenthal manages to find the comedy in the characters’ relationships, without undermining the poignancy of the plot. Making Portia’s search for a husband and the courtroom scenes into game shows was a fantastic idea, beautifully highlighting the superficiality of Venetian life. Indeed, the comedy often emphasised the poignancy.

Take the famous ‘If you prick us’ speech as an example: delivered as it was to Brown and Clarke’s vacuous, preening clowns, the audience were too busy laughing at the pair’s reactions to Shylock’s appearance to notice when the speech first began. The audience’s shift from raucous laughter to shocked silence as Woolf delivered the speech demonstrated the intelligence of Lowenthal’s approach, with the reaction mirrored on stage by the growing stillness of Brown and Clarke.

The use of religious symbols was similarly insightful. Christians’ big, gaudy crosses and rosary beads are worn as symbols more of fashion than faith. Shylock’s sombre kippah and references to religious life give the impression of a character whose faith is deep and important. This contrast affords the ruling for Shylock to give up his religion and become Christian a deeper resonance.

A couple of things niggled however. The clunky spotlights and sound effects accompanying asides were cringe worthy, especially as they were so clumsily done. The set was also far too bare for it to make sense within the concept. I understand it’s a touring show, but still, the ADC has a massive props cupboard, and you’d think they might have plundered it once they’d arrived back in Cambridge. The costumes are done beautifully, with great attention to detail, yet they looked strange when compared to the dull set, furnished just with a handful of deck chairs.

With such a sparse set, the focus is entirely on the acting. Luckily they all lived up to the challenge, with strong acting across the cast. Charlotte Quinney as Nerissa was fantastic, mixing great physical comedy with very strong handling of verse; indeed she stole most of the scenes she shared with Portia. Elsewhere, the relationships between the characters were realised expertly, especially the banter between Gratiano, Bassiano and Lorenzo.

This production manages to be at once irreverent and intelligent, breathing new life into Shakespeare’s classic tale of difference and revenge. Get your hands on one of the few tickets left, and see what a good ‘concept’ looks like.