The Merchant of Venice – June 2008


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Pia Furtado

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th June 2008

Wow! This was an amazing performance from a group of very talented actors. They’ve set a high standard for the full production to live up to.

The set was simple, a basic purply-red. The upper level had a projecting semi-circular balcony, and the wall in front of that was raised and lowered at times. The play opens with a dance. The cast troop on stage, and with Antonio front and centre, they cavort about a bit, and then most of the group leave the stage to the opening trio. From the opening lines, I was aware of hearing much more than I usually do, even for a play like this which I’m reasonably familiar with. I suspect my hearing aids helped a lot, but the actors were so clear with their dialogue that I heard many of these lines as for the first time. The comments by Salerio and his pal, for example, in this opening scene, never struck me much before. This time I was aware of how they expressed what would be troubling them if they were in Antonio’s shoes.

There was much hugging in this performance. All the Italian men seemed to get on really well and care for each other, so there was no suggestion here that the youngsters were sponging off the older, richer Antonio. Nor was there any hint of homosexuality in the Antonio/Bassanio relationship – it was played completely straight as far as I could see. Gratiano got a lot of laughs from his lines, especially when he came back on again to give even more of his thoughts to his jaded listeners. He played it with a fairly serious expression throughout, and got a lot of detail into his performance.

When Portia and Nerissa discuss the soon to be ex-suitors, various men in the audience were picked out to represent these unfortunate men. Everyone seemed to take it in good part, and this is one way in which a full audience can really help the understudies get used to their parts.

The caskets in this production rose up from the floor to the rear of the stage. Largely undifferentiated, we didn’t get to see the inscriptions nor the contents, all of which worked just fine for me. As each suitors made his choice, Portia was revealed behind the rear wall, fully decked out in her wedding dress, and a part of the balcony wall rose up to reveal a long row of wine glasses, partially filled with water. Several hands appeared and played these glasses – they made a haunting eerie sound, quite beautiful. It was a bit disconcerting at first to see the disembodied hands at work, but I soon got used to it. At the end of the first half, these glasses were again on show, and several of them filled up with red liquid, presumably representing the blood that could be spilled if Antonio can’t be saved in time. Not so effective, I thought.

When Bassanio comes to make his choice,  Portia is with him initially, then moves to her position at the back. And when he is successful, a servant has to indicate with a jerk of her head that he should go and kiss Portia – he is a bit dim, this guy. Unlike Gratiano, who takes the opportunity to have a good snog with Nerissa. These kisses go on for some time, and it all becomes too much for Launcelot Gobbo, who grabs the female servant and gets his tongue down her throat as quick as you like. She doesn’t push him off, either.

Snogfest over, the bad news about Antonio breaks up the party. I remember thinking as Portia is blithely talking about paying umpteen thousand ducats to help Bassanio’s friend, just how rich is this woman? Her attitude suggests she could get the amount out of petty cash and not notice a hole.

Since Nerissa and Jessica are being doubled, and we need both on stage at this point, I don’t know how this is being staged in the regular version. Here, Nerissa isn’t on stage until after Portia has given instructions to Balthazar, so there’s even more emphasis on the fact that Portia hasn’t told Nerissa her plans. Still, she seems to be up for it, so off they go.

The trial scene was well done, although I wasn’t entirely sure about the long breakfast bar that rose up from the miniscule basement. Running from front to back of the stage, it was long enough for a man to lie down on, and this was where Antonio was placed when it looked like Shylock was going to get his pound of flesh, with Shylock standing over him. Must be quite a sight in the full production, as Angus Wright is pretty tall anyway (Sean Kearns is no short-arse either), and to have him an extra three or four feet up should be pretty dramatic. The audience was a bit nervous this time, though, and there was a bit of giggling, which weakened the tension somewhat. Mind you, Arsher Ali as Antonio didn’t have anything like a pound of flesh to hand over. The most aggressive liposuction would have been lucky to get as much as a few ounces. Even so, I’m looking forward to seeing this part again.

The actual trial worked very well. Shylock had some scales on the far end of the breakfast bar, and was well ready to use them. Bassanio and his mates were in fine form – Gratiano was so obstreperous that he had to shift himself pretty quickly when the security guards started taking an interest. He reappeared on one of the side balconies, hurling abuse like a football fan, and was grabbed and dragged off by the security guards to stop him causing trouble. Bit of a police state, this Venice.

The ladies turn up in suits (and did they have little beards?), looking more manly than many a cross dresser. I’d like to see Amara Karan’s Viola sometime. One nice touch was the way the Duke handed the letter from Bellario over to his clerk to read out from the balcony (it is in the text, but it seemed new to me this time around).

With Antonio saved, there’s really just fun left now, although I did feel sorry for Shylock’s suffering. Gratiano does look concerned when Bassanio changes his mind about giving the ‘doctor’ Portia’s ring, but even so he not only takes the ring to the doctor but ends up giving his own away as well. Silly boys. The scene where he does this had a very peculiar staging. The balcony wall was raised up again, in a similar way to the glass-playing incident, with Portia and Nerissa sitting on the edge of the balcony as if by a stream. So far, so good. However, when Gratiano comes walking along, we can only see him from the waist down, and when the women stand up to join him, they’re likewise obscured from view. Steve reckoned this may have been to put more emphasis on their hands, but it just looked wrong to me.

Back in Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo are having connubial fun, as usual. There’s a sparkly thing that came down from the ceiling, a bit like a glitter ball but in long strands. These sparkled beautifully, but they kept moving up and down, which I found distracting.

The final ring scene was great. I love the way Gratiano betrays Bassanio without hesitation (other than a pause to let Bassanio say one of the funniest lines of the play). The girls were magnificent, giving their husbands a good winding up, which they thoroughly deserved. When Portia has to produce the good news letter for Antonio, she gets it from a chap sitting in the front row, possibly one of her ex-suitors from the first half. Then Nerissa has to produce a letter for Lorenzo, only she can’t find the gentleman on our side of the front row who’s been given it. Oh dear! It looks like everything’s gone horribly wrong, but the RSC are fond of inserting rehearsed mistakes, and eventually she remembers – she’d tucked it in her waistband.

Other points to note – we get the full Gobbo in this production, father and son. It was well enough done, though it’s always a tricky scene to pull off. The performances were all good, and I liked Sean Kearns as Shylock. He was very business-like, and at this stage relatively unemotional, but the dignity and loathing were there, and I felt for him as he went through his self-inflicted torture.

I felt the final dance went on too long, as all I wanted to do at that point was applaud. This was such a good performance I just hope the ‘real’ one isn’t a disappointment.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

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