The Merchant Of Venice – August 2008

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tim Carroll

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th August 2008

I wondered back in June if the first team would be as enjoyable to watch as the reserves (the football metaphor is apt, for a number of reasons). Sadly, this time I found they weren’t, although some of the individual performances were very good. From the session with Tim Carroll this afternoon (perhaps it would have been better scheduled tomorrow), I was hopeful that his neutral approach would lead to fresh awarenesses, but sadly it seems to have led to a bland and surprisingly lifeless production, with only Shakespeare’s excellent writing saving the day.

Firstly, I’ll cover the things that didn’t work so well for me this time around. Gratiano was played well enough, but William Beck as the understudy did such a good job that I found myself enjoying this performance much less. The laughter started considerably later as well, and the character seemed nondescript compared to the other version. No criticism of John Paul Connolly is intended here; I reckon the directorial style doesn’t help to create clear characterisations – more on that story later.

There were some distractions tonight that didn’t happen before. I noticed people moving around up on the top level of the balcony, musicians I expect. We were in similar seats for the understudy run, but I didn’t notice any movement then, so whether it was just me or not I don’t know. Also, during the casket choosing by Bassanio, I noticed Launcelot Gobbo and the other maid eyeing each other up. Although I knew they were going to have a snog later, I still found this distracted me from the main event, without adding anything to the performance.

I found Portia less interesting and less lively this time around too. I mentioned last time that I’d like to see Amara Karan’s Viola sometime, whereas Georgina Rich, although giving a good performance for the most part, seemed to lack confidence throughout. This worked fine during the trial scene, where she’s understandably unsure of carrying off her portrayal of a man (for all her boasting to Nerissa) and unsure of how to get Antonio out of his predicament. (In this performance I was very clear that she finds the life-saving loophole at the last minute.) But it doesn’t sit so well with a woman who “but now .. was the lord of this fair mansion, master of my servants, queen o’er myself”, nor a woman who could dare to take on a man’s role and successfully argue a case in law in which a man’s life was at stake. I don’t suggest brazen arrogance would be appropriate, but this degree of nervousness did seem out of place.

As far as the staging goes, there were some extra details which I don’t remember from last time (see below), and which I felt improved the effects; however I found the ring delivery staging, with the actors only visible from the shoulders down, just as strange as before, although the lines did come across more clearly. The filling of the wine glasses with red liquid was completely undercut in this staging, as the lights were so dim I couldn’t actually see the colour being used – it just looked dark. I knew it was red from the understudy run, which must have been better lit, but while I was prepared to reassess this effect, had it been the same, all I can say now is that it left me cold.

As did much of the performance. The lines were often very clear, and I did catch some more snippets than before. However, the delivery was often very choppy, leading to the effect seen in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Quince delivers the speech beginning “If we offend, it is with our good will.” The sense was lost or garbled. Some of the long pauses worked quite well, some made the speeches unintelligible. It was very hit and miss, and I felt the production style left a lot to be desired in getting the play across, if this was the best they could do. For Portia’s speech before Bassanio chooses, when she’s at the back of the stage, I couldn’t make out a word.

The ‘big’ speeches were also undersold, which can be fine. They are so well known that it’s nice to see them slipped into the dialogue as if they’re just extensions of the characters’ thought processes (which they are) instead of sing-along arias, where the play grinds to a halt while the soloist gives their all, and the audience’s applause can lead to an encore. I know this doesn’t actually happen in today’s theatre (did it happen in the past, I wonder?), but it can feel like that. However, tonight’s really big two – “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and “The quality of mercy is not strained” – were approached differently but each had their problems. The “quality of mercy” speech was really clunky, and didn’t seem to arise out of anything other than that was what the script told her to say at that point. The “Hath not a Jew eyes?” snuck up on me unexpectedly, which was very nice, and it certainly sprang directly from the character’s need to express these ideas at this time, but it was less moving than it could have been, and possibly less effective as a result.

The main problem I had with this performance was the lack of engagement. I really didn’t care about these characters. I wasn’t moved by any of it – they seemed to be empty husks saying the lines clearly, for the most part, but missing the point of the dialogue entirely. I was frankly bored for large chunks of the first half, and nodded off for a bit. I wouldn’t have believed this possible from our earlier experience with the understudies.

So what did I like about this performance? Well, Angus Wright, an actor we’ve both liked for many years, was very good as Shylock. His lines always came across clearly, sprang directly from his character, and he was powerful both in premature victory and in defeat. His stance over the prostrate Antonio on the breakfast bar was definitely menacing, and even at the end, with the conditions placed on him that would be almost unbearable, he confronted Antonio nose to nose, and kept his dignity. The way he crossed himself as he left got a small laugh – it suggested to me that he would play their games, but without any change in his convictions, or his loathing towards the “Christians”.

The three caskets turned out to be blocks of ice, with the keys being small icicles. There was some reference during today’s talk of ice representing virginity, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about – they didn’t use these caskets during the understudy run. When the correct casket was chosen, the ice block cracked open, as I suspected it would.

The final scene was very enjoyable, and I’d put that down mainly to Will’s fantastic writing. Antonio looked more than embarrassed to find he’d inadvertently got his friend into trouble – his face was a picture. The performances were good enough to get all the usual laughs, and the finding of the letters in the audience was slightly better than before. Antonio even tries to ask the dear old lady who handed over his letter, for more information about his ships and where she got the letter, which was well done and amusing. It even delayed Portia’s next line for a while. Nerissa had stowed her letter away in her sleeve this time, and all ends happily. I wasn’t so frustrated by the dance this time, as my urge to applaud wasn’t so great, but still I joined in willingly when the time came.

As to how we feel this style of production works or doesn’t work for us, Steve saw it in footballing terms, as when George Graham sold Malcolm MacDonald because he didn’t want stars in his team (couldn’t handle them, Steve reckons), while I saw it more as an inkblot production, putting the responsibility on the audience to make something of it, rather than making choices for them. While this seemed like a good idea this afternoon, I now see it as less appealing, although I accept that for some people this may be the sort of production they yearn to see. My problem is I don’t relate well to inkblots (and let’s face it, Shakespeare’s plays are themselves inkblots, so an inkblot production of an inkblot play isn’t going to give us much to go on.) I have a perfectly good imagination, but I also see quite clearly, so unless there’s something, some idea or sense of the characters or story or situation that I can begin to relate to, I’m stymied. I like to observe productions closely, and pick up on the minute nuances of a performance, but here there was nothing to go on, and so I found it less than enjoyable for the most part. I also sense that it may have stopped the actors from really getting to grips with their characters, as back stories and inner lives seemed to be excluded from the rehearsal process.

It was all the stranger because the understudies had given such life to their performances. I reckon they were probably raising their game – Championship contenders playing Premiership opposition in the Cup – and the influence of the Assistant Director may well have played a part, but in any case, I’m glad I won’t be seeing this again.

P.S. Apropos of my comment for the understudies performance about wondering just how rich Portia is, Steve had an interesting insight today. He realised that Portia wasn’t just rich, she was mega-rich compared to the merchant class of Venice. He reckoned she would have been in the same sort of position as Christina Onassis – too rich to be able to trust anyone, least of all the men who came wooing. This makes her father’s strange arrangement in his will more sensible. He may have realised he wouldn’t be around to vet all the prospective suitors, so set up the tests to weed out the undesirables. Those who went for gold were ruled out, as were those with a bit more wit, but considerable vanity. Only those who were prepared to give everything at the risk of receiving nothing would be worthy of her hand. Given the totally unlikely possibility that the secrets of the caskets would remain secrets in this day and age, when failed suitors would be posting the information on their Facebook page within seconds, it still makes much more sense to me with this new perspective.

Also, apropos of nothing, did Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Catholic countries, especially Italy, so he could get Catholic imagery into his plays more easily? Discuss.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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