By William Shakespeare
Directed by Polly Findlay
Date: Tuesday 26th May 2015
This has only just been reviewed by the papers, so it’s still early in its run; hopefully it will come on from this shaky and rather uninspiring start. The production style included a fair amount of gimmicks – a swinging pendulum, mirrors at the back and on the floor, lots of candles – which often proved to be a distraction, and with very little detail in most of the performances I found I couldn’t care about these characters at all. The script had been heavily edited but the story was pretty clear; it’s just that their way of telling it didn’t engage me or give me any insight into the play. It’s possible that the inkblot style had been deliberately extended to the characterisations as well, supposedly allowing us to make our own minds up; although some people prefer that style of production, I generally find it unhelpful. Having said all this, we enjoyed ourselves enough to rate the performance at 6/10, so there’s the possibility of improvement on further viewing.
We were let in fifteen minutes before the performance. The reason for such a late entrance was immediately clear: Jamie Ballard stood alone on the stage as we entered, looking a bit moody. I debated whether to strike up a conversation, but decided to give him his space. He was dressed in black trousers, grey top and a thigh-length black coat – modern drab. He kept his hands in his pockets at first, but took them out during this long preliminary section and made the occasional gesture such as running a hand over his head. He didn’t appear to move from the spot much, but he did look around at the audience as the auditorium filled up.
Our seats were near the front on the central aisle, so we anticipated a good view of proceedings, and on the whole that was true. The set was very simple: the floor was mirrored, there was a huge mirror almost filling the back of the stage, and a large metal ball hung just above the floor back left. The walkways had been removed on both sides and there were no steps up to the stage from any angle I could see. There were bench seats all along the side walls leading off the stage at the back, and after a few minutes, Steve spotted the actor playing Shylock sitting on the right hand side (we’d seen him before in 11 And 12). Another actor sat on the other side a short while later, and most of the cast gradually accumulated in this way before the start. A member of the audience actually sat on the bench as well, and I noticed an usher having to work hard to persuade her to move; I didn’t see her go but she wasn’t there for long.
With so much chatter going on, I had no sense of what we were meant to take from this build up – perhaps nothing. With a few chiming sounds and some music, the performance proper started. Antonio’s opening lines were spoken to all of us – the house lights were still up at this point – and he became quite emotional during this speech, almost in tears. Salerio and Solanio both came on when the first of them spoke, and Antonio could not get a word in edgeways when Salerio began his speech. He had been given Solanio’s lines as well, so he went on for ever, and Antonio had to wait for him to run out of steam before he could explain why his reasoning was faulty.
Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo came on from the benches, and checked themselves out in the mirrored back wall (laugh). Bassanio was wearing an overcoat with some kind of sleeveless tunic on top of that – it looked very odd. On the whole the clothes were modern, but with some strange twists here and there. Gratiano wore a bright blue coat with an orange scarf, and I noticed later that he had multi-coloured trainers on his feet. Lorenzo was relatively plain compared to these two.
Gratiano was another Venetian who liked the sound of his own voice. He spoke at great length and said nothing of interest, but he did get some early laughs. On “sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster”, Gratiano indicated a white-haired gentleman in the front row, which got the audience going; Antonio was very apologetic to the gentleman. Bassanio had clearly come to speak with Antonio alone, so he gestured to Lorenzo with a cutting motion of his hand to ask him to get Gratiano off stage. Easier gestured than done. It took several goes, with Gratiano returning each time for another burst of chatter. Lorenzo had to physically manhandle him off stage so that Bassanio and Antonio could have some personal time together.
Left alone, they became awkward with each other. Antonio tried to get things going with a comment about Gratiano, and Bassanio gratefully took the opportunity to prattle a little himself – there was a small laugh on the comment about the two wheat grains being “not worth the search”. Antonio finally plucked up the courage to go over to Bassanio and give him a kiss, which Bassanio accepted, without seeming to be in love with Antonio. After this, Antonio started up the difficult conversation about the “lady…to whom you swore a secret pilgrimage”. Bassanio began another long-winded explanation and Antonio responded angrily whenever the young man mentioned how much he was in debt to him. However Antonio agreed to help Bassanio, and gave him another kiss because he was unhappy at the thought of Bassanio marrying Portia.
They left together, and as they did so, Portia entered from behind the back mirror-wall, went over to the metal ball and gave it an almighty push. It then began to swing to and fro in the back left corner, and did that for the rest of the performance, God knows why. Nobody referenced it in any way, it just kept on going and occasionally made me feel a bit nauseous, but I’ll get to that bit later. For now, Portia, in a deep red dress, and Nerissa, wearing trousers and a top, sat against the mirror-wall on the right and discussed Portia’s suitors. Actually, Portia came forward to the front left corner to describe them, but despite her proximity I felt the lines were rather thrown away. There was very little laughter which is unusual for this section. I did wonder if this rather boyish Portia and trouser-clad Nerissa might be having a lesbian relationship in this production – it’s amazing what one’s mind can come up with when a performance doesn’t grab your full attention – and I finally spotted that Nerissa had half of her right arm missing; good to see the casting net is spreading ever wider these days. I don’t remember if the Scottish lord was included this time, and Portia’s reaction to the news that her suitors were leaving was hard to make out.
Shylock was seriously dressed down in this production. He wore beige slacks, an indeterminate coloured shirt and a pale blue zipped jacket. His Jewishness was not evident, which can be a valid point to make – we are all part of the same human race after all – but we both felt that some visual indicator to highlight Shylock’s exclusion from ‘polite’ Venetian society would have been helpful. This outfit was certainly different from the men we’d seen so far, but given the eclectic nature of the costumes we couldn’t easily draw any conclusions from that.
Makram J. Koury’s delivery of Shylock’s lines was another drawback to the performance. The accent wasn’t a problem as such, but his characterisation was rather bland, which reduced much of the tension between him and Antonio. He did look happy at the thought that “Antonio shall become bound”, smiling to himself as he repeated Bassanio’s words. I spotted that his hands and head were twitching a bit; I didn’t get the impression when he was sitting on the side benches that this was down to the actor, so presumably it was meant to be part of the interpretation, but I can’t be sure. [20/8/15: Having attended a talk by him this afternoon, he does appear to have a slight hand tremor, so apologies for any misunderstanding.] I think some of his aside about hating Antonio was cut, and he showed disappointment at Antonio’s jibe about the devil quoting scripture, without any sign of anger.
Antonio, meanwhile was showing plenty of contempt and scorn. He laughed at Shylock’s sarcastic question “hath a dog money?”, he asked the audience “for when did friendship take…”, and he spat in Shylock’s face at the end of that speech, provoking a gasp from the audience. This was strong stuff, but Shylock simply took out a hanky and wiped his face, remaining gentle in his response, and Antonio was won over by his apparently generous offer of an interest-free loan, provided he repaid the money in full by the agreed date. Bassanio was happy to be getting his money for most of the scene, but objected to Shylock’s suggested penalty; Antonio over-ruled him and left to do the paperwork in high spirits.
I had been feeling a bit nauseous during that scene due to the constantly swinging pendulum. Our view was excellent, but it did mean that the swinging motion was almost always in our line of sight, and even when I wasn’t feeling queasy I found it a bit of a distraction.
The lights were lowered after they left the stage. Portia and the Prince of Morocco came on and stood by the back wall for their short scene, which I found underpowered. To be fair, most of the recent performances of this part have been well over-the-top, so perhaps this version simply suffered from being ‘normal’. There was a very long pause after they exited, with the lights being raised again but only back to the previous levels. This was obviously meant to happen, but still took a long time, and then Launcelot Gobbo spoke up from somewhere amongst the audience. It took me a while to locate him – he was by the front left corner of the stage, sitting at the end of the front row. He was actually spotlit, but as I couldn’t see much of him anyway, that didn’t help me at all. Steve was much smarter than me: he looked at the reflection in the rear mirror, but even so he missed a lot of this bit.
Launcelot chatted to the people next to him for a while. He did get round to saying his lines, but with little chance of hearing him properly, and no chance of seeing what others were laughing at, I basically sat back and mentally twiddled my thumbs till there was something going on which I could participate in. I did hear the line “the fiend is at my elbow”, which got a good laugh, and from the audience response I assume it was good fun if you could actually see what he was doing. The pendulum was more intrusive in this situation, and again I began to feel a bit nauseous.
I think he went all the way through his inner debate before he got up and went to the corner of the stage. He clambered onto it with some difficulty, causing more laughter – this bit I could see. His face was painted white, though not as much as a clown’s face. His father didn’t put in an appearance – only two hours ten minutes for this performance, so a lot was cut – and his next encounter was with Bassanio, who agreed to take him into his service. He gave Launcelot a wad of notes, and while Bassanio retired to the back of the stage to instruct his other servant, Launcelot came to the front to chat to us again; I don’t remember much of this – I’d been disengaged by being cut off from the performance at the start of this scene, and nothing had happened to improve matters on that score. Bassanio and Gratiano did their conversation quite well, but I still felt removed from the play.
Another scene, another strange staging choice. Launcelot was saying his farewells to Jessica, and this is normally a good scene for us to get to know Shylock’s daughter. Tonight she was standing behind the tall mirror, looking over it at Launcelot down below. We heard later from others who had been round the sides that they had no idea where Jessica was, and I sympathise; this was Launcelot’s entrance all over again. She dropped a letter down to their former servant, but being trapped in that small space, she couldn’t do much to establish her character. It certainly made the point that Shylock kept her as a virtual prisoner in his house, but plenty of other productions have made this point just as well or even better, and still allowed the actress to come on stage and show us her predicament: ‘nul points’ on that one.
Gobbo seemed to have even more adieus than are in my text, and called Jessica back several times during this short scene. He left, she delivered her final lines, and then the young Venetians came back on to discuss their plans for the evening. During this, Gobbo came on and started throwing scrunched up bits of paper onto the stage, until he finally located the letter he’d come to deliver and gave it to Lorenzo. This was another piece of irrelevant business which just got in the way of the main action. I did like the way he left though: having clambered onto the stage earlier, he now went to the front left corner and clambered off again, a nice touch which got another laugh.
Gobbo was back on again in no time to bring Shylock to Bassanio’s dinner party. The delivery of lines was mostly OK, but I lost a lot of Gobbo’s dialogue because he spoke too quietly to Shylock. Shylock was on stage and watching as Gobbo delivered the message to Jessica, making it improbable that he wouldn’t have overheard, especially as Jessica was still on top of the mirror, but they just about managed to pull it off.
Jessica was replaced by five choristers during the scene change; they were spaced out along the top of the mirror and sang beautifully. Gratiano and one of the two ‘indistinguishables’ (Salerio and Solanio) came on with torches, followed by Lorenzo. Jessica threw a bag down to them; it landed with a heavy thump, and Gratiano took it over to the front of the stage. The men were very happy to see all that money, and Jessica arrived downstairs before Lorenzo had finished praising her so she heard what he said. He gave her a kiss, and then a mask to wear. Antonio found Gratiano and told him the boat was leaving that night, and then we were off to Belmont again for the first casket scene.
The way the caskets are presented is something every director tries to do differently; some choices work, others don’t. This was a bit of both. The caskets were lowered down at the front of the stage; one of the servants used a set of ropes back right to lower and raise them, though I didn’t spot this at first. Each casket was a different shape: a gold hat box was on the left, a silver cone was on the right and in the middle was a lead cube. They were lowered in that order, and the choristers sang while this was going on. The caskets were quite small, and bore their inscriptions in crude red lettering, as if a child had painted them.
The Prince was wearing jeans, a jacket and a turban. He went through the options once, and on the second pass he discounted lead and silver: these caskets were raised back up again as he rejected them. He then checked out the gold casket by opening a door in the side of the box to find the picture and the scroll. He was naturally upset at losing out, but did at least put the casket back together before he left, removing his jacket and turban on the way. (One reason why the Prince may have been relatively subdued was he was doubled with Gratiano, and the actor presumably wanted to make these two characters sufficiently different to avoid confusing the audience.)
A short scene for the ‘indistinguishables’ to tell us of the aftermath of Jessica’s escape – I was well aware that this was soon after the event – was followed by the second attempt on the caskets by the Prince of Aragon. Almost worth the price of admission on its own, this Prince was played as a suave cravat-wearing Englishman by Brian Protheroe, who came up the central aisle and introduced himself to various members of the audience, shaking hands here and there. More David Niven than a foppish Spaniard, and none the worse for that. He jumped nimbly onto the stage after reviewing the conditions under which he had to make his choice, and after some deliberation chose the silver casket.
There was some laughter as he removed what looked like a mobile phone, or possibly a mirror, and a very small piece of paper. The writing was so small he couldn’t see it very well, and had to take a magnifying glass out of the cone to read it – more laughter. He was also unhappy with the result of his choice, and although he put the small object back into the cone, he tore up the schedule and stuffed it in his mouth before putting on his sunglasses and stalking off stage. Magnificent. I did notice that Portia was worried during each of these choices, and registered which caskets didn’t have her picture: she now knew which the correct casket was. She was thrilled to hear of Bassanio’s arrival, and rushed off with Nerissa to see him.
The ‘indistinguishables’ were back, and told us of Antonio’s wrecked ships. When Shylock came on, he tried to get off stage to avoid them, but one of the two spat in his face before he reached the relative safety of a walkway. This led into a longer argument and then the “hath not a Jew eyes” speech, which I felt was sadly underpowered. Shylock did look happy to hear of Antonio’s losses, and his warning to the other two men about the bond showed that he was already thinking of murder as his chance for revenge. Tubal’s arrival normally brings about much emotional upheaval for Shylock, but tonight this was also very muted, and I wasn’t at all moved by Shylock’s “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”, which is usually a sure sniffle moment for me.
Portia was clearly smitten with Bassanio – all over him like a rash – but I couldn’t tell what he felt for her. When the caskets were lowered, Portia herself sang the song, accompanied by the others, and emphasised the endings of the lines: “bred”, “head”, nourishéd”. Steve spotted her pointing at the lead casket, just in case he hadn’t got the message, but I missed that bit. I wasn’t absolutely sure about his dialogue at the time, but afterwards we came to the conclusion that he had taken her hints and simply used his lines to make it seem as if he’d done it all by himself.
But first we were treated to a long pause, which led Gratiano, impatient for his own reasons, to call out “the golden one!” – huge laugh. Bassanio mainly looked at Portia as he spoke his lines, while Gratiano grunted when Bassanio rejected the gold and then the silver casket. Gratiano was on his way out, convinced that Bassanio had blown it completely by picking lead, but came back and joined in the celebrations with everyone else when it turned out he hadn’t. Given Portia’s constant nudging towards lead, Gratiano clearly wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box.
Gratiano started a hand clap to get Bassanio to kiss Portia, and lots of people joined in – it can be fun sometimes, this audience participation. Bassanio moved towards her and they were about to kiss, when he broke off and went into “Fair lady, by your leave…” to check that he was indeed her future husband. She reassured him, and finally we got the kiss, though I noticed there was no reaction from the audience – fickle. Nerissa seemed to be appalled when Gratiano announced that they were getting married too, but she got over it and was happy again, so perhaps she was just startled that he’d told everyone so quickly.
Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio arrived (I’m going by the text here, as I still haven’t a clue which ‘indistinguishable’ is which) and gave Bassanio the letter from Antonio. Portia was quick to spot that the letter contained bad news, but so far there was nothing else to worry about. She was also quick to propose paying six thousand ducats or more to clear Antonio from the bond, and the Venetians were awestruck at the amount of wealth she had (and which they could now hope to sponge off Bassanio), with Gratiano grabbing the other two (much laughter). The problems arose when Bassanio read the letter out loud, and Portia recognised the subtext of a deeper relationship between the two men which might damage her marriage to Bassanio. Nevertheless, she sent Bassanio off to rescue his friend with as much cheerfulness as she could manage. Interval.
The restart worked in much the same way as the opening, although Antonio wasn’t stuck on the stage throughout the interval. He was on stage for the beginning of the scene though, and Shylock came on with an officer to arrest him. Antonio was resigned to his fate, and expressed anger towards Solanio (text again) when he suggested the Duke would intervene.
Portia came on carrying a letter for her servant, normally Balthasar but unnamed this time and played by a woman. (This may have been to avoid confusion with Portia’s alias when in disguise.) Lorenzo and Jessica interrupted her, so she kept the letter behind her back while talking with them, giving it to her noticeably pregnant servant after they left. Portia then explained her plan to Nerissa, prompting me to wonder briefly how well Nerissa’s disguise would work given the lack of half an arm, but I pushed the thought to one side: if I can handle colour-blind casting I could surely manage this, and so it proved.
Gobbo and Jessica began their dialogue while still sitting on the side benches, he on the right side, she on the left. They soon moved forward though, and ended up sitting together at the front of the stage; Jessica didn’t seem to take Launcelot’s teasing seriously. Lorenzo came on at the back and watched them for a bit before he spoke – a bit creepy if you ask me – and while he and Launcelot had their discussion about the pregnant maid, we could see the woman herself walking across the back of the stage, fanning herself with the letter which Portia had given her. In one sense, she was “in speed to Padua”, but if that was the fastest she could go, Portia would have done better to send a speedier messenger. Once Launcelot had finally left the young couple, they continued talking for a while, but although the lines were clear enough I had very little sense of what was going on between them.
Now for the big set piece: the trial scene. Apart from Jessica and Lorenzo, who were still at Belmont, the cast walked on to the stage and stood spread out across it in lines, each carrying a bundle. They began singing, put their bundles down and took off their outer garments to change into their new outfits: this included Portia and Nerissa putting on dark suits, and the pregnant maid becoming the Duke, complete with chain of office round her neck. When they were done, both the changing and the singing, the Duke spoke the first line “What, is Antonio here?”, Antonio replied and the formation broke up with most of the cast leaving the stage, gathering the discarded clothes as they went.
The additional furniture was brought on quickly – one very high table and a chair centre back of the thrust – and Shylock made his proper entrance carrying a bag; he walked across the stage and placed the bag on the ground front left. Antonio stood front right, the Duke sat on the chair and Bassanio and the other Venetians stood in a group along the back. I noticed a large black bag beside Bassanio, presumably with the money. The audience was temporarily included in the trial when Shylock said “you have among you many a purchased slave” – I think we were the owners, rather than the slaves – and Gratiano must have been particularly vociferous with his contributions, because I have a little note that I would have liked him to shut up!
Portia stood at the side of the stage while Nerissa gave the Duke Bellario’s message, and came on at the appropriate moment. There was some laughter when she asked “which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”, though with so little to distinguish Shylock from everyone else, the question seemed quite reasonable to me, both in terms of Balthasar and Portia herself. Her pronouncement that the law favoured Shylock – “the Venetian law cannot impugn you” – drew some reactions from the onstage audience, and while her “quality of mercy” speech was OK, it didn’t do much for me, though again there were some onstage reactions to it.
Bassanio brought forward the bag in response to “is he not able to discharge the money?”, and shook it out so that paper money cascaded over the stage in a vast swathe – clear evidence of Portia’s wealth. Shylock became quite frisky when Portia stated that the bond was forfeit and that the moneylender could take his pound of flesh. He brought the chair forward to the middle of the stage while Antonio took off his jacket and shirt. Bassanio went over to Antonio for their final words together, but avoided a kiss in public. Portia looked away as they spoke together, but turned back on Antonio’s “say how I loved you”, clearly aware of what was going on between the two men. Bassanio took off his ring – the ring – when telling his friend that nothing meant more to him than their relationship, and Portia’s subsequent comment – “your wife would give you…” trailed off when Bassanio and Antonio kissed and then embraced each other.
Portia made her declaration of the court’s decision angrily, and when Antonio moved towards the chair, he began whimpering. Quietly at first, but it continued as he sat down and then his body started to shake and tremble, understandably. This was probably the most realistic interpretation of Antonio’s situation that I’ve seen: his mind was willing, but his body was saying ‘hold on a minute!’ Someone tied Antonio’s hands behind the back of the chair while the group behind were singing. As the pressure built, Antonio started retching, and all this while Portia was studying the bond, looking for a loophole. I didn’t see what gave her the idea, but suddenly she came out with the perfect solution – Shylock may take the flesh, but not one drop of blood! How the Venetians cheered.
Shylock was already off the stage and part-way up the right hand steps when Portia called him back to hear the rest of her judgement. He stood there listening to her, and at some point Gratiano ran over to gloat right in his face. He forced Shylock down to his knees on “down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke”, and Shylock’s final departure was fairly non-committal, with no great sense of how his punishment was affecting him.
The Venetians huddled round Antonio to congratulate him, and after the Duke and court left, Bassanio pulled on his gloves before asking Portia what he could do to reward the lawyer for freeing his friend. Portia eventually asked for his gloves, and when he removed them, she spotted the ring and asked for that as well. Bassanio held out manfully despite her criticism of his refusal, but he caved very quickly when Antonio told him to give it to ‘him’. Bassanio’s final lines, “and in the morning early…” for once made me very aware that they would have a night together before they set off. Oh dear.
Gratiano caught up with Portia and Nerissa and delivered the ring, and Nerissa went off behind the curtain with him to visit Shylock’s house. Portia exited some other way, and then we were left with an almost empty stage, apart from the money, of course. There was a huge amount of it lying everywhere, which would have been impossible to ignore in the final scene. To clear it away, several of the cast came on with wide brooms, and with the choristers providing musical accompaniment from the top of the mirror, they followed a regular pattern to move the money to the sides and front of the stage, then off at the corners and front (from where I gathered a few notes for our records; fake, sadly. I wasn’t the only one either – I spotted Gobbo nicking some as well.)
Finally the stage was clear, and then Launcelot brought on a lit candle, one of the chunky ones, and set it down near the front of the stage: quite pretty, and appropriate for the candle references in the final scene. Jessica and Lorenzo came on and did their little teasing dialogue, and they seemed to be getting on quite well – oh, here comes Launcelot with two more candles – and then the pregnant lady arrived with the message from Portia. More candles. With the mirrored floor, the points of light were multiplied, and although the reflection in the mirrored back wall wasn’t as clear, that added to the glow. The candles looked as if they were burning at both ends, and the whole effect was quite pretty at this point. Unfortunately, Launcelot kept bringing on more and more candles, long after we felt he should stop. Perhaps it was a trade-off: his lines were completely cut, but he got to create a massive fire hazard instead! As you can imagine, this was yet another distraction from the play itself, but at least it took my mind off the nauseating pendulum.
Lorenzo’s speech about the moonlight was a bit boring, although the chiming music which he had asked for was quite nice. (More candles.) Portia’s first line was spoken from the side bench, and she and Nerissa came on when Lorenzo recognised her voice. The scene rattled on quite nicely from there. (More candles.) Bassanio made a chopping motion with his hand to tell Gratiano not to say anything about the rings, but of course he couldn’t help ratting out his ‘friend’, and smiled at him afterwards to boot. (Yet more candles – will this ever end? The “candles of the night” are meant to be stars – you don’t have to take it so literally.)
The theatre was getting noticeably warmer by this time too, although Bassanio and Gratiano were probably feeling decidedly chilly as their wives took full advantage of the situation to torture them verbally. I’ve known this scene to be funnier, but they did a decent job and we enjoyed it well enough (it’s my favourite of Shakespeare’s funny scenes). When all was revealed (more candles) Portia’s “Antonio, you are welcome” was said as if she was responding to him thanking her, perhaps a pointed reference to how much she’d done for him and how much he owed her.
The lights began going down as Nerissa gave Lorenzo the deed of gift from Shylock, which upset Jessica so much she ran off stage (more candles). Lorenzo went off after her, then Portia left, Bassanio followed her and then Nerissa, with Gratiano the last to leave. Antonio was alone on the stage as he had been at the start, though the benches were also empty this time. He walked over to one of them and paused, as if deliberating whether to join the happy couples or not, then sat down, still melancholy. There were a few final bars from the choir – don’t know when they started up – and that was that.
The cast returned for their bows, picking their way between the candles to avoid getting burned or starting a fire. I noticed, as we applauded, that many of their clothes were just long enough to be in the flames if they weren’t careful: I’d love to know what the actors (other than Launcelot) think of that. We were reasonably happy with our evening, even though much of the production hadn’t been to our taste, and now that we know how it’s being done, it’s possible we may get more out of it next time; I’m not banking on it, but you never know.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me