The Merchant Of Venice – July 2007

5/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rebecca Gatward

Venue: Globe Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th July 2007

It was good to get back to the Globe again, after a long gap. Unfortunately, there were knee and back problems again today, although it was the other way round – the lady in front kept leaning back into me for the first half, and I found it difficult to keep my knees out of her way. She sat further along for the second half, so I was able to concentrate more. We were also distracted by a number of late arrivals finding their seats around us – I do feel they should have a better way of doing this, as the wooden floor and seats make it all noisier than the average theatre.

This was a good basic production of The Merchant Of Venice, with some nice touches, but not a lot of depth. The performances were fine, and some were very good. We particularly liked Launcelot Gobbo (Craig Gazey), who did a good job in the RSC’s Complete Works season in The Tempest and Antony And Cleopatra. His dithering over the advice of his Fiend (cupcake) and Conscience (picked clean bone) was very entertaining, and he did pretty well with that part which is usually dropped – the duologue with his father. The final scene was also excellent, as the cast got the full measure of humour out of that little ring misunderstanding.

The Globe had been decked out with a Venetian bridge, a jetty and another set of steps. There were five balconies – the usual three and two extras between them. Before the start, we were treated to a scene of Venetian life, with small shop fronts in the back wall, goods being transported into a storeroom, a courtesan wandering around looking for business, a tailor’s dummy displaying his wares, and drinks being served on a barrel. Several young Venetian men were frolicking around, making fools of themselves, and the crowd was enjoying all the sights. Eventually, a more sombre man appeared, with two companions, and as others started packing away their wares, they launched into the play proper.

This Antonio was more responsive than many I’ve seen, making faces at his friends’ constant attempts to find a reason for his melancholy. When Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano stagger on (Bassanio carrying the other two) and collapse in a drunken heap, the first two beat a hasty retreat, evidently keen to be on their way. For once, Bassanio seems to be as much of a merrymaker as Gratiano. It’s clear from the way Antonio pats Bassanio’s knee that he’s absolutely smitten with him, and while this message gets across clearly, it didn’t feel overdone. It’s also noticeable that he might have done better to show his affections to Gratiano, who looks at him longingly on several occasions.

It’s clear Bassanio is only after Portia to make good his depleted fortunes. He doesn’t even remember her name at first, and I got the impression he was telling himself “Sounds like a car  … Porsche!”. With such rampant greed and shallowness, I wondered how he was ever going to get past Portia’s father’s cunning traps, but I also wondered if Portia would use the “hazard” to give him a clue. I can only assume both Antonio and Portia fell for this Bassanio’s looks, as he really doesn’t have much else going for him. His gratitude for Antonio’s help is expressed with a kiss, causing the usual reaction from the youngsters in the audience, and a hug. Poor old Antonio – getting what he wants, but not in the way he wants it.

At Belmont, we first see Portia being greeted by her current crop of suitors. There are various lewd gestures and movements, and indeed this production makes extensive use of the bawdy elements in the play. Portia’s descriptions of the suitors are good fun, and include the Scottish lord for once. In fact, this production was as full as I’ve known it – there may have been no cuts at all, or only a very few. The actress playing Portia had originally been cast as Nerissa, and was now promoted, while another actress had been brought in to play Nerissa. Both were good, though I really liked Jennifer Kidd (Nerissa) and look forward to seeing her again. I don’t know how long the new arrangement had been in place, but their performances were very assured, so I assume they’d had some time to get into their parts.

The meeting with Shylock went OK, but I didn’t get as much of a sense of past history between him and Antonio as I have done in other productions. This Shylock (John McEnery) was no grotesque caricature, but seemed a much more ordinary man, albeit one who had more rules about what to wear than clothes in his wardrobe. His coat had a yellow spot on it, very reminiscent of Nazi Germany, but in fact it was required for Jews in Venice at that time to wear a yellow symbol if they left their getto during the day (they weren’t allowed to leave it at night – yes, I read the program notes beforehand). His hatred for Antonio is clear, and there’s no love lost the other way, either.

The Prince of Morocco makes a good show on his entrance, and is soon off to make his choice from the caskets. Launcelot Gobbo gives us his entertaining thoughts on decision making, ends up with a blob of cream on his nose, and chats with his father, then asks Bassanio for a job, which is granted. Gratiano also asks for a favour – to go with Bassanio to Belmont, and Bassanio agrees, but asks that Gratiano checks his natural exuberance.

Now we see Launcelot again, in his new livery, dragging a large case behind him and sobbing as if his heart would break. He’s sad at having to leave Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. This was another good comic scene by him, helped by his livery, which was as varied a combination of different tartans as you could imagine. (Actually, don’t try imagining it, you might make yourself sick.)

The plot for Lorenzo and Jessica’s elopement develops nicely, but wasn’t as clear as some of the other bits. What was clear was Shylock’s dislike of going to feast with Christians, and for a moment or two it looked like he might not go, but he does. Jessica chucked down a casket, then scarpers herself, and it’s not definite with this relationship how grasping Lorenzo is. Does he really love her, or is he only after her father’s money? I felt there was more of a relationship here than just gold-digging, but maybe I missed some clues.

By this time the audience had pretty much settled down, and knees aside, I was able to focus more on the action on stage. The caskets were large, orb-like creations, mounted on tall glass plinths, and covered with cloths. Portia stood in the balcony, while the Prince of Morocco made his choice below. I wasn’t sure if Portia already knew which casket held her picture – I got the impression she probably didn’t, and finds out through the two suitors who choose wrongly – but it wasn’t emphasised either way for me. The Prince gives us a good round-up of all the inscriptions, handy for future reference. Once he’s made his choice, the keys are presented to him on a cushion, and he takes the golden one only to find …. a grinning skull. While he read the scroll out, the head rotated, which got a good laugh.

Back in Venice, Antonio’s mates give us the first intimations of how the bond plot will develop. Shylock is making a spectacle of himself round Venice, weeping and wailing for his daughter and his ducats, while Antonio’s fortunes seem to be on the wane. Oo er. In Belmont, the next suitor to try his luck with the caskets is the Prince of Arragon. He chooses silver, silly boy, and gets a jack-in-the-box for his trouble. He’s evidently not impressed at having to pick the key up himself from the proffered cushion, but he does redeem himself a bit by giving us his final lines very well – “With one fool’s head I came to woo, But I go away with two.”

Antonio’s mates now tackle Shylock directly, and find him committed to revenge on Antonio. Tubal also helps to feed that desire, by describing Jessica and Lorenzo’s behaviour in Genoa. There’s no shading here, no sense of grief at Jessica giving away Leah’s ring for a monkey, just bitterness and anger.

Bassanio’s turn to choose has come, and in this production, Portia definitely gives him a clue when she pauses to emphasise the word “hazard”. We can see Nerissa and Gratiano conspiring down below, and when Bassanio comes down to make his choice, he looks to Gratiano for guidance, the first time I’ve seen that done. I must say, Bassanio’s speech about outward show being deceptive sounds strange coming from a man of his character, but I suppose you could argue that he knows that truth better than anyone. Still, it comes as a change of pace; after all, he hasn’t been through any real challenges so far. The director seems to consider he only falls in love with Portia when he sees her picture – debatable – and he hasn’t yet experienced the anguish he’ll be going through later, when Antonio’s life is almost ended, an experience that could cause him to grow up fast. So I guess we’ll just have allow for artistic licence, and go with the flow.

The image of Portia is in fact a little doll, dressed exactly as she is, and Bassanio does indeed speak rapturously over it, but he does also assert that the doll, though beautiful, is far behind the real Portia in every way. Gratiano obviously bears Bassanio’s words of caution about his behaviour in mind when telling the two lovebirds about his match with Nerissa – he’s quite stilted, holding his arms in unnatural postures, and looking very uncomfortable. Fortunately, all is well, until the bad news comes from Venice. Bassanio’s confession to Portia that he “was worse than nothing” was very honestly done, and showed courage, and Portia takes it all in her stride. She is one very wealthy woman. In Venice, Antonio attempts to talk with Shylock, who refuses to hear him, while Portia and Nerissa also head off to Venice, to have some fun. Interval.

The second half (actually the final third, as the first part took the best part of two hours, and there was only another hour to go) began with Launcelot and Jessica quarrelling. This time it was fairly gentle, and Jessica isn’t too disturbed by it. Launcelot, accurately described by Shylock earlier as “a huge feeder”, has a plate of chipolatas and ham in his hand, and toys with a sausage all through the discussion. When Lorenzo finally gets him to go and get dinner ready, he stuffs the remainder in his mouth, and sulks off.

It’s been a while coming, but now it’s here. The court scene. It’s much as you might expect from the production so far, with Antonio giving a good performance as a man ready to die, and Shylock sharpening his knife on his boot. The Duke was standing on the bridge to begin with, and as the clouds had come over, I was a bit worried he might get wet, but the rain stayed off for the whole performance, thank goodness.

Portia and Nerissa manage to carry off their disguises by the miracle of disbelief suspension, as they’re nothing like as manly as some we’ve seen. The “quality of mercy” speech is done well, run into the general dialogue between Shylock and Portia, rather than a set piece which the whole cast lumbers up to. The best parts are the way Portia only thinks of the catch that will prevent Shylock getting his pound of flesh at the last minute – the very last second, in fact – and the wives’ comments to their blissfully ignorant husbands about how their wives would react to their proposed self-sacrifices on Antonio’s behalf. Afterwards, when Antonio has persuaded Bassanio to send his ring after the clerk, Gratiano is noticeably distracted by the courtesan, who’s back in business.

Now we’re on the last lap, and the finishing post is in sight. Lorenzo and Jessica are more teasing here with their litany of unhappy lovers, and I didn’t get any sense that their relationship is on trouble. Portia and Nerissa have changed back into female attire before returning, and Bassanio and Gratiano have at least thought to do a little shopping before they come back, as both are carrying small carrier bags – presents for the wives. It’s not long before the first fight breaks out, and then the women are in fine fettle, working the men up brilliantly. Bassanio tries to sneak off down the steps, and hide the missing ring by pulling his long cuff down over his hand. No use, he ends up having to confess all. Antonio helps out by pledging his soul that Bassanio will be a good boy in the future, and Portia accepts this, bringing all their misery to an end.

It was such a good finish to the performance that I felt really upbeat as we left. I always enjoy that scene, and they’d done it so well. I still feel there was more to be got out of the play, even given this interpretation, but it was an enjoyable afternoon overall.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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