REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice
This watery tale of division and shady deals showcased some impressive acting talent
This revamped take on Shakespeare’s ambitious and divisive play has particular poignancy in our own post-Trump/Teresa world.
Set in a divided world where race and status can quite literally make or break an individual, this play showcases a society where the law is up for contention and morals frequently drawn into question. The underworld of borrowed money and deadly payments is contrasted with the surreal courtship of those with an abundance of both money and power, but in this play it is shown that every apparent privilege has its downsides.
The Princess Diaries-slash-nineties gameshow aesthetic of the world occupied by the renowned beauty Portia (Laura Pujos), and her friend Nerissa (Alice Jay) was highly entertaining, and I loved the pixelated graphics that were projected onto the screen behind them, accompanied by the bleeps of what appeared to be a Nintendo DS – Shakespeare would be proud. Being confronted with a Tinder-style dating app that the characters swiped though, rejecting men right and left, was the perfect antidote to the tedium of Shakespeare purists. In fact, the whole play felt like a very accessible and individual take on a play that seems hard to modernise.
The real star of the show was the set: a beautifully designed wooden Venetian backdrop complete with an underworld that was only visible when a section of the set was lowered and a bridge with a picturesque window that characters frequently made good use of, gazing out at the audience, or adding significant levels to the scenes where Shylock (Megan Gilbert) was being tormented by the rest of the characters. The direction overall was stunning, with potentially very problematic scenes being dealt with in a mature way.
Megan Gilbert was incredible as Shylock – her passion and energy really drove the show, and her characterisation was so breathtaking that she carried a scene with no words at all and moved the whole audience almost to tears. The tension in that moment was palpable, and I almost wish the play had ended there so that we could have left on what was one of the most powerful moments of student theatre that I have seen.
The watery theme was subtly but effectively conveyed throughout the performance, with strategically placed lights picking out the ripples on the surface of the real – yes, real – channels of water on the stage. I particularly liked the fact that the audience could always hear the flowing of the water, creating a bucolic Venetian atmosphere that both assisted the scenes of light comedy, and added a somewhat threatening contrast to the darker moments.
This play dealt with humour brilliantly, really drawing out the funniest moments of Shakespeare’s text and allowing the physicality of the actors to complement their lines. If at times in the first act there were lines from the ensemble that were a little slurred and rushed, the second act brought together the enthusiasm of the whole cast and resulted in a newly energised performance.
As I left the theatre I couldn’t help but think about the relevance of Shylock’s beautifully-delivered line “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” I think we could all learn something from the prejudices highlighted in this play.
Even if Shakespeare’s racist stereotyping is sometimes uncomfortable, the aesthetic beauty and brilliant acting of this performance proves that even plays that seem archaic in script form can be adapted with skill for the modern stage.