The Merchant Of Venice – May 2015

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Polly Findlay

Venue: RST

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.

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The Merchant Of Venice – September 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 14th September 2001

Amazingly enough, seeing this for the third time, and from a different angle, gave us a completely different experience of the production. We enjoyed it much more, got a lot more from the performances, and while the last scene still just didn’t work from our perspective, our overall feeling was that this is a decent production. I would have rated it 8/10 but for the down-beat ending.

I don’t think there were many changes that we noticed, although I can correct some of my earlier descriptions and add some extra detail. We arrived much earlier, and found that Antonio was on his own in the casino to begin with, apart from the dealer, that is. The others gradually joined in, and Steve noticed Bassanio trying to borrow money off other characters. The music started gently – Luck Be A Lady Tonight when we arrived (good choice) – and gradually the rhythm picked up, the cast started moving faster, repeating their actions, and then Elvis rose again and launched into Viva Las Vegas to get us going. There may have been something wrong with his microphone tonight, as we couldn’t hear the words clearly and his voice didn’t carry as much as I remember from before.

Two things about the conversation in the lift tonight – one is that I was distracted by all the details in the performances of the other lift users, which meant I lost some of the Salad boys’ dialogue, but I did notice that at the end of the lift conversation, the janitor ends up in the basement, and is called over by the little girl. As it’s the same actor playing the Prince of Arragon, it appeared that the janitor has simply been seconded to play a fake suitor for the purposes of the ‘reality’ show. If so, that means the program is being filmed in the basement of the casino, so why on earth does Bassanio need three million dollars to travel a few floors in the lift? Apparently that bit of casting was something they decided in rehearsal, so again the cast knew far more about the production than they could get across in performance. I’ve found that a lot with this production – chats with the actors have been more interesting and enjoyable than the performances themselves, a bit arse over tip if you ask me.

The trapeze work was in the right front corner tonight, and happened as Antonio was hiding out in the audience, when Shylock and an officer were coming to arrest him. This was the place last time, I remember. I suppose it could mean that Antonio was simply watching one of the shows the casino puts on, but then why was Shylock wandering around with a torch? I certainly didn’t get that impression last time we saw it, so I guess this is another of those things that makes sense to the cast, but never mind the audience.

The janitor also featured in the trial scene. When Shylock is making his point about the slaves which the Christians own, he brings the janitor, possibly an illegal immigrant from Mexico, over, which certainly makes a relevant contemporary point. Shylock reads a prepared speech for his first lines about not explaining his decision to pursue Antonio through the court system, and this didn’t ring true – the rhythm was all wrong. When Antonio is being prepared for the knife, the janitor is given the rope to hold, and the police officer puts a pad in Antonio’s mouth to help him avoid screaming.

I was paying more attention to Portia this time when she entered for the trial scene, and I saw that she was having difficulty opening her briefcase – what was that all about? I could see past Antonio to where she stood on the staircase, but I still have no idea about her sudden rescue of Antonio. Did she know in advance? Did she come up with the ‘no blood’ solution herself? We may never know, and frankly, I no longer care. We deliberately chose to ignore the setting and weird production choices tonight, and that’s the main reason why we enjoyed the performance much more, up to the final scene. From Scott Handy’s session at Living Shakespeare the next morning, we learned that the final scene had been much too slow – in his view, they hadn’t done it well the previous night. That may be true, but he also informed us that this ending had been decided by Rupert Goold from the outset, which helped to explain for me why it felt out of step with the rest of the production.

I did notice that several aspects of this version had been toned down from the original, suggesting that the cast may be reclaiming the play in beneficial ways. For example, instead of a strange movement and grimacing smile from Patrick Stewart after judgement is given against Shylock, he kept his response much more low-key, suggesting that although Shylock is hurt by the experience, he’ll bounce back in the future, and may well carry on plotting against Antonio. The changes between scenes were tighter, and little bits were being dropped, such as the near-accident and squealing brakes at the end of the car scene.  Between these improvements and our change in attitude, it’s no surprise we had a better time last night. Even so, I’m glad we won’t be seeing this one again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Merchant Of Venice – August 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 22nd August 2011

There were some improvements to our experience this time compared to June’s performance, but on the whole I found it rather dreary to have to sit through such an uninspiring production again.

On the plus side, we were viewing from a different angle, and in the stalls, so I caught some of the expressions that I hadn’t been able to make out before. We had also heard two very interesting talks today from Susannah Fielding who played Portia and Scott Handy who played Antonio, and although I still don’t agree with many of the choices this production makes, it did at least give me some points of interest to look out for during the show. Another bonus was that we could make out the dialogue much better this time, a common experience amongst those who had seen the production before, while those who were seeing it for the first time still found it hard to make out what the characters were saying. Familiarity is clearly important with this piece.

On the down side, I still didn’t connect with or care about any of the characters enough to want to watch the story unfold again. The sheer negativity of the production is unrealistic in my view, and while I accept that the choices made can be supported to some extent by the text, there’s so much in the play that isn’t being addressed that the performance seems superficial and distorted. However, it is leading to a lot of discussions, which is always a good thing.

Most of the differences I noticed tonight came in the second half, which I found the better of the two, but I’ll start with the first half. I noticed some extra business with the suitors; in particular, Portia and Nerissa recited the inscriptions along with the two unsuccessful suitors, and for the Prince of Arragon they were also waving guns around. The Prince of Arragon was less Manuel-ish this time around, but his accent was so over the top that I couldn’t make out much of his dialogue at all.

I found the scene with Launcelot Gobbo, the angel and the devil easier to follow this time round. I suspect they may have moved the slot machines further forward to improve visibility, and the angel and devil seemed to be taking longer over their lines, fondling poor Gobbo as much as they could, so it worked better for me (he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all!). The scene in the car seemed shorter also, though I couldn’t say why.

The short chat between the salad boys took place in a lift, depicted by means of a square light shining down, a ‘ting’ as the lift door opened and closed, and all the occupants lifting up on their toes each time it started down. At the end, only the janitor was left, and he got out in the basement – this was just before the second casket scene. This was the same staging as before, from what I can remember. The first half ended after Shylock’s conversation with Tubal, with Shylock doing a little dance to show his suffering, anger and desire for revenge.

The second half started with Bassanio’s casket scene, and the reason I ‘enjoyed’ the second half more was that I could see much more from Bassanio in both this and the trial scene. I spent most of the first half thinking that Richard Riddell had a very inexpressive face, but the second half proved that wrong. He managed to portray a man who could be in love with Portia given half a chance, but who then realises how much Antonio means to him, and destroys his marriage before it’s begun. I still found Portia’s emotional uncertainty at the point when she should be happiest a bit inexplicable. Susannah Fielding had talked about it earlier, but I reckon it’s one of those things that may work in an actor’s head, and yet doesn’t necessarily come across in performance. Her grimacing continued in fine style to the end of the play, and I could almost sympathise with Bassanio in the final scene, as he realises he’s landed himself with a complete nut job.

Now that I could hear more of the dialogue, I was also aware of how much this interpretation of Portia is at odds with her speech. How exactly does a ditzy blond airhead know about young Alcides and the Dardanian wives? And there were other lines that just didn’t fit with this heart-led southern gal persona. But at least Bassanio’s thought processes as he faced the three caskets were good and clear – hooray – and I was very conscious of his comments about ‘snaky golden locks’ being wigs, and not natural at all. When Portia did un-wig herself (and perhaps that speech gave her the confidence to do it?) there was a wry smile on Bassanio’s face, as if he recognised the falseness, and didn’t mind it. At this point, it looked like he was willing to be a good husband and might even end up in love with Portia, if she could let go of her protective image and show him another, stronger side to her personality.

This time, I noticed that Nerissa had lost the high heels and was wearing sensible trainers when she and Gratiano joined the two on stage. After Bassanio has read the letter from Antonio, and the situation is explained, Portia asks how much is owed. Her reaction when she’s told that it’s three million dollars is wonderful – petty cash as far as she’s concerned. We’ve realised before that she’s very, very rich, but this rewording really does bring it home in today’s terms. The reaction from the others to her response was also good – jaws drop, and Gratiano looks at Nerissa and wordlessly asks if Portia’s really that wealthy? Nerissa nods, and Gratiano is stunned. Thirty-six million dollars is a drop in the ocean to this woman (‘Double six million, and then treble that’). I also noted the line ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’, and heard a reference to it again later.

The next bit was the same as last time, I reckon, but we could see it better. Antonio snuck on stage and dropped into the seat in the first row, far side of the left walkway, just across from us. The lights were low, and Shylock came on with a torch, searching for him. When he found him, he called on the LVPD officer to arrest Antonio – I spent my time peering at the badge on the officer’s uniform to check they’d used the LVPD name, but I couldn’t see it clearly. Too much CSI, I’m afraid. The short dialogue between Antonio and Salarino which is part of this scene was hived off, and shown later.

The girls’ night in was much as before, though I was able to see the expressions more clearly, and Portia’s patronising attitude to Jessica came across very strongly. I saw Jessica as more grown up this time, unhappy with some aspects of her situation, but able to handle them better than Portia will be later. Nerissa still looked shocked and unhappy at the idea of ‘prayer and contemplation’ – how will she get her hair and nails done?

The postponed scene between Antonio and Salarino may have been inserted here, as the trial scene isn’t far away. Antonio is now in the fetching orange jumpsuit so favoured by American prisons, and is sitting on a stool near the front of the stage, while Salarino is up on the balcony. They talk on the phone, and when they finish, Antonio puts the phone down and is led away by the guard.

Now I don’t remember exactly when the trapeze bit happened, but it was around here somewhere. A trapeze was lowered down near the front left corner of the stage, and one of the actors, in a fetching blue leotard as I recall, wiggled about on it a bit. Then the trapeze was taken back up and the next scene started. What was all that about?

The scene with Launcelot, Jessica and Lorenzo is swiftly followed by the trial scene. This time, Antonio wasn’t standing in the same place all the time, but did have to be there for a considerable period. I was conscious of Scott Handy’s comment earlier on about Antonio’s mind being ready for death but his body wanting to stay alive, and that certainly came across tonight. His body was quivering and trembling, and it was hard to keep watching, but equally as hard to look away. Portia’s dawning realisation of the relationship between the two men was clear, but it did take away from her performance as a lawyer – too much going on. The rest of the scene was much as before, and I still felt there was no way that Portia got the answer she did, despite Susannah’s efforts. Gratiano’s exclamations in praise of Balthazar were powerful and worked really well tonight, so on the whole I was happier with this trial scene.

One thing I remember that I can’t find in the text is Bassanio saying to Antonio something along the lines of Portia’s words ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’. Since it appears to be an insertion, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m confident it was in the trial scene.

The final act was similar to before, but this time the touching between Antonio and Bassanio was up front – across Portia’s lap – so no mistaking the meaning there. Everyone’s as miserable as last time, there’s still a lot of wasted humour, and we left the theatre glad to be free at last. Will we put up with it for a third time? Wait and see.

One interesting point that came out of a later talk by Dr Erica Sheen is the sheer number of references to flesh and blood in the text. I hadn’t realised this before – god bless these academics, poring over a hot text day and night to give us these insights – and I certainly wasn’t aware of it from this production, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Merchant of Venice – June 2011

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 13th June 2011

Well, this started off on a high note, and gradually got weaker and weaker until it fizzled out. The production concept was a mix of Las Vegas casinos and a reality marriage show, but as often happens, those concepts were used until the text could no longer support them, and then just disappeared. The performances were all good, given these production choices, and as it’s still early days there may well be more to come. Rupert Goold is always willing to change things that don’t work, or to improve a performance, so we’re not too concerned that we’ve already booked to see this one again.

The set had two staircases sweeping down on either side of the stage, with a landing in between and space underneath for slot machines or an entrance way. The floor was covered in a diamond pattern of blue tiles, and there was a similar pattern in lights on the back wall above the stairs. Before the play started, there were three casino tables on the stage with lots of punters at each, waitresses brought drinks to various customers, and there was a strong beat to the (loud) music as well as some heavy-duty rhubarb going on.

The music and action continued when the auditorium lights went down, until Elvis himself rose up through one of the tables and began to sing. Viva Las Vegas was the opening number, and with two dancers helping him out, this song covered the removal of two of the gambling tables. This left the one table at which Antonio sat, largely ignoring the song and dance going on around him. The rest of the customers had joined in, though, and this was a very lively start to the play.

When Elvis left the stage, taking most of the cast with him, the remaining blackjack table was moved to the centre, and were left with the ‘salad boys’ and Antonio for the opening scene proper. One of the salads was the dealer, while the other was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Antonio, and just looked like another player. No previous relationship amongst them was indicated by this setup. The American accents used in this production certainly fitted in well with the location, but now it became clear that they were going to interfere with the clarity of the lines. The dialogue came across well for the most part, but at times I had to struggle to make out what was being said, and this was one of those times. Scott Handy as Antonio was fine all the way through, and admittedly this is an opening scene that I’ve rarely seen done well, so perhaps the accents weren’t entirely to blame.

I had heard that this production made Antonio very keen on Bassanio, and although I couldn’t be certain of this when he was talking to the salad boys, it became very clear when Bassanio himself turned up. As soon as Bassanio started talking about Portia, Antonio closed down in his body language, folding his arms, moving away from Bassanio. It hurt him a lot, but his love for the man made him offer everything he had to help him in pursuit of another love. I was a bit puzzled when Antonio gave Bassanio his credit cards at the end of the scene – if he could use these, why would he need to borrow money on the Rialto? – but it was only a minor point. I did like the change from three thousand ducats to three million dollars, as it made it easier to grasp the enormity of the sum, and of course it emphasises just how rich Portia is, later on.

The Belmont scenes appear at first to be set in a TV studio, where a reality show called Destiny is being filmed. There are signs for ‘Applause’ and ‘On Air’, two banks of TV screens to show us the camera’s viewpoint (the cameras were placed well back on the walkways), and there were glamorous hostesses as well as a sweet little girl in a bridesmaid’s dress. Portia and Nerissa were on a sofa which rose up in the middle of the stage, and they were glammed up from head to toe. Portia had a large blonde wig, white outfit and huge heels – think Paris Hilton and you won’t go far wrong. Nerissa was dark, in a blue/green outfit, and they chatted for a bit before the announcement that they were about to go on air.

As soon as they did, Nerissa became the slick interviewer, toning down her southern accent and ditzy attitude to quiz Portia about her suitors. Portia is all rich airhead at this point, also with a southern accent, and I found myself wondering how this interpretation was going to cope with the demands of the trial scene? But back to the interview. The descriptions of the lords were pretty good (no Scottish lord), and then the little girl came on at the back and handed Nerissa an envelope with the Destiny logo. This contained the news that the suitors had all left, to Portia’s relief. They went off air after the announcement that the Prince of Morocco had arrived to try for Portia’s hand.

Back in Vegas, Shylock is examining the model for his latest project – a multi-million dollar development with lots of strangely shaped buildings from the look of it. It seemed a bit over the top for a despised money-lender – if he was accepted enough into the community to be getting approval for that sort of project, he wouldn’t still be a money-lender on the Rialto, surely? Anyway, Shylock is portrayed as a silver fox, a ruthless businessman who can nevertheless be somewhat ingratiating, especially after Antonio’s outburst later, but I never felt that Patrick Stewart had nailed the American accent – it was just a bit too British underneath.

Antonio is furious about having any dealings with Shylock, and it’s one area where I felt this production did a good job, showing the their mutual antipathy. These men really loathed one another. However, Antonio is pleased with Shylock’s offer to charge no interest and set up only a ‘joke’ penalty if the bond is forfeit, and so the deal is struck.

Back in the studio, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to take his chance. The understudy took the role tonight, and he was dressed in a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, and looked like one of those paunchy, older boxers who just won’t retire. Several bananas were thrown on the stage as he entered, which Steve found quite disturbing; it’s certainly more overtly racist than I’ve seen before, and not really necessary in my view. It’s also the first time I’ve noticed that Portia uses the word “hazard” when she talks to the Prince. I’d noticed she does it when she talks to Bassanio, which could be interpreted as an attempt to point him in the right direction, but using it here suggests otherwise; it’s just an appropriate word in the circumstances.

The filming ended with some razzamatazz, and then slot machines were inserted into the gap between the stairs, and Elvis is singing again, I forget what. Turns out, the Elvis impersonator is Launcelot Gobbo, and he’s at the middle of the three slot machines with his back to us. Seated on his left is an angel, dressed in white and with little wings, representing his conscience, and on his right was a devil, dressed in red (and did she have horns?). The angel and devil turned round and spoke their own lines, and although they fitted the words together very well, I felt I’d seen much better versions of this speech. When he’s finished deliberating, the slot machines, angel and devil leave, and in this production we get to see Old Gobbo, although of course, he doesn’t see us! I don’t know why this scene was included, as I didn’t get anything from it.

It’s during this next phase of Merchant that many productions try to minimise the scene changes. Not so here, with many little snippets coming thick and fast, which lost some of the play’s momentum, as so much scenery had to be changed. Firstly, we switch to Shylock’s house, all gloomy and dull, especially compared to the glitzy casino and TV studio settings. One light bulb hangs down towards the front of the stage, and Jessica, plainly dressed, has to fetch a plain chair to be able to turn it on. She then sits on the chair, reading a book. Launcelot comes on with a massive suitcase, and they say their farewells.

The next scene has the salad boys with Lorenzo and Gratiano discussing their plans for the party/abduction later that night. During the open day yesterday, we saw a session which took us through how this scene was developed in rehearsal, with the help of six or seven volunteers. They all had acting experience of some kind, and after a short while, with some coaching from Lisa Blair, this production’s assistant director, their delivery improved and they started to add some actions as well. With prompting, they came up with the idea of the four of them sitting in a car, playing music, and drinking. The car was represented by four chairs. As things developed, the actual effects were added in, and the final effort was very good. We loved it, especially as we’d seen it grow from nothing, so when it came to the real thing, we were always likely to feel disappointed, and that’s what happened. The pumping music included the words “Barbara Streisand”, the salad boys were in the back and Lorenzo was driving, instead of Gratiano in yesterday’s version. Launcelot came on from the front, I think, and the car screeched to a halt when they see him. He hands over the letter, and is called back by Lorenzo so that he can take something to Jessica – from yesterday’s session I gather it’s a crucifix. The salad boys get out as well, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano drive off, with Gratiano reading the letter. With a blaring of horns, Lorenzo slams the brakes on to finish the scene. The car this time emerged from under the stage, and returned that way, of course, which should have helped to speed up the changes, but the flooring took a while to come back into place, so the next scene wasn’t as quick to start as it could have been.

I’m not sure if the scenes follow the same order as my text at this point, so I’ll go with the order of scenes in my text unless I remember otherwise. So now it’s Shylock leaving for the party, and warning Jessica to shut all the doors, etc. followed by the abduction scene. As Shylock left his house, lots of costumed folk came on stage, cavorting about and having fun, not that Shylock was interested. When Batman arrived, he turned out to be Lorenzo, and when Jessica throws off her coat to reveal her disguise, she’s done up as Robin. This was good fun, but otherwise the scene was fairly tame – all Batman costume and no knickers.

The next scene is back at Belmont, with the first televised casket choice. One problem with this staging is that if the choices are televised, everyone watching will know the correct casket after the second wrong choice, making the whole thing pointless. Anyway, three stands are wheeled on with gold, silver and lead boxes, Portia is done up in bridal gear, the little bridesmaid sits at the front of the stage, and there’s plenty of showmanship on display. When the Prince opens the gold casket, a glass cube rises up, with a skull and a scroll. When he leaves, there’s a little bit where Portia and Nerissa end the show with “The ancient saying is no heresy: Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” from Act 2 Scene 9, and then they’re off air. Portia drops the fake happiness, and makes her comment about the Prince.

The Salad boys have their conversation about Antonio on the balcony, so we’re very quickly into the next choosing scene at Belmont. This time, the Prince of Arragon is dressed like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and the choosing is fairly straightforward, with the silver casket being placed to the front of the three this time and containing a fool’s head, as promised. There’s a reprise of the “Hanging and wiving” lines, and then the news of Bassanio’s arrival, which cheers Portia up no end.

Back to the casino, and some café tables appear for the next scene. The salad boys are having a drink and discussing Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock comes on, and chooses to sit at the other table, but comes over to theirs to deliver the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with the style of delivery chosen, which seemed jerky and unconvincing. I was sympathetic to Shylock overall, but this speech didn’t help. Tubal uses his phone to show Shylock a picture of the ring which Jessica has swapped for the monkey, and Shylock’s reaction was moving at last – I got a real sense of what that ring meant to him. Otherwise, the scene was uneventful.

In Belmont the studio is set up again, and Bassanio is sitting in a chair on the set for his discussion with Portia. He seems to be in love with her, judging by his words, but there was no other evidence throughout the play, so I’m at a loss to know what was intended with this portrayal. Bassanio is led off when Portia says “Away then!”, and part way through her next speech the show goes on air. When she says “Go, Hercules”, Bassanio appears at the back, dressed as Hercules, to make his choice. The lead casket is, of course, at the front this time.

They included the song, I think, and then it’s a nervous few minutes for Portia, who’s standing on the stairs to our left. Bassanio reasons things out OK, and I noticed the box wasn’t actually locked this time – he just opens it without a key. Previously the keys had been supplied by the little girl, who also led off the unsuccessful suitors from the front of the stage. This time, I don’t think the little girl was there, and by the time Bassanio has made his choice, the show is no longer referenced. The screens are blank, and there’s absolutely no sense of the world watching this private moment, which in terms of a reality show is completely unreal.

The lead box simply contains a remote control(?), which sets off a recording on the screens, of Portia reading the final scroll, so Bassanio can’t comment on Portia’s loveliness by comparing her to her picture. Her reaction to this bit was puzzling. She’s happy that Bassanio had chosen correctly, and she’s obviously recorded the speech, but she seems as surprised as Bassanio when she sees it. Perhaps it will come across more clearly when we see it again. Portia has taken off her wig and shoes, so Bassanio can see her “such as I am”. I got no sense of any reaction from him to this transformation; without her wig she’s dark-haired, and still pretty, but perhaps not what he expected.

Gratiano and Nerissa announce their wedding plans, and then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salanio arrive with the letter for Bassanio. Jessica stays on the stairs, reluctant to join in, even when Nerissa goes up to welcome her. With their arrival, Portia puts her wig on again, and is bright and cheerful. The reading of the letter brings Antonio on to speak the lines himself, then they all leave in haste without even having married, as far as I can see.

There’s a short scene where Antonio has been arrested, and is being taken away to prison, then Portia, Nerissa and Jessica come up on the sofa again in dressing gowns, having a girls’ night in, with Jessica attempting to put two slices of cucumber on her eyes. Portia appoints Lorenzo as her steward, and when Balthazar comes on he’s carrying two large bags with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises – men’s suits – which they put on before leaving.

The conversations between Launcelot and Jessica, and then with Lorenzo, were OK, and then the court scene is set up, which takes a while. The setting is now an old butcher’s warehouse, with lots of meat hooks hanging down, and strips of plastic at the back entrance. A case is placed in the front right corner of the stage, and Antonio, in a badly-fitting orange jumpsuit is led over to the case and stands there, all through the scene. It’s a nightmare bit of blocking for anyone behind him, as he doesn’t move for a long while, and then two guards are holding on to him when Shylock is about to take his pound of flesh. Frankly, they should be selling those seats as restricted view – you have been warned.

There’s also a table in the front left corner for Shylock, who puts his briefcase there, and a desk back right for the lawyers. The Duke could almost be a Mafia boss in his dress style, but then why the concern for the rule of law? Antonio and Shylock’s hatred of each other came across loud and clear, but otherwise the scene lacked the tension that’s usually generated here. Instead of tension, we got sensationalism. When the time comes for Shylock to take his pound of flesh, all pleas falling on deaf ears, they take a long time to set the process up. Antonio is suspended from one of the meat hooks, and one of the guards is pulling the rope tight behind him, while the other holds him down. Antonio’s already removed his jumpsuit to the waist, and stands there, chest heaving with nerves, while Shylock takes an age to prepare, even stroking Antonio’s flesh with the knife, toying with him. It all goes on for far too long, while Portia, near the top of the stairs on our left, seemed to get the answer once, but too early, so had to go round again, looking anxious, glancing at the bond, then finally stopping Shylock just as the knife is about to go into Antonio’s flesh. How she got the answer I’ve no idea, because although she’s not a complete air-head, she’s not the super-smart bunny we’ve known from other productions.

Once he’s thwarted in his plan, Shylock naturally wants the money instead, but this Portia takes a gloating pleasure in denying him even that. Antonio has collapsed on the suitcase, understandably, and only stirs when Shylock is told about the seriousness of his situation. There’s definite malice in insisting that Shylock convert to Christianity, and Shylock’s reaction is unusual; he grins, flips his yarmulke off and acts all happy before asking to leave. At least, that’s what I could make out from behind the man – hopefully I’ll get a better view next time.

I couldn’t see why Bassanio changed his mind about the ring this time, although Antonio seems to want Bassanio to choose him over Portia. Portia and Nerissa are on the balcony when Gratiano catches up with them, and then we’re back to Belmont for the final scene. Lorenzo and Jessica rise up on the sofa and have their little teasing section – hard to tell what’s going on there – and then Stephanie turns up with news that Portia is coming back. When she arrives with Nerissa, I didn’t hear any lines about hiding their absence from Bassanio, and it all seemed very rushed. The ring section was weak due to this interpretation, and got very little in the way of laughs. When Portia greets Antonio, they sit on the sofa, and when Bassanio joins them, he makes contact with Antonio behind Portia’s back. I wasn’t absolutely sure that she spotted this, but her manner changes afterwards, so I guess she did. Nerissa ends up on the left walkway, with Gratiano saying the final line to her, and then we get the final Elvis song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?  During this, Antonio sits on the sofa on his own, Bassanio has gone all moody and wanders around on his own, Portia has taken off her wig and is dancing with it alone in the middle of the stage, crying, and everyone seems to be completely miserable. I have no idea why this is going on; maybe I’ll get a better idea from a different perspective.

I felt the visual aspects of this production were very good, and some of the ideas were interesting, but most either fell by the wayside or just didn’t work for me. None of the characters was likeable, and although I felt some sympathy for Shylock, on the whole I just wasn’t engaged with the play at all. The accents may have contributed a lot to this; Gratiano in particular had a very unpleasant voice which put me off this normally entertaining character entirely. There was no real tension in the trial scene, and the racism was too blatant and crude for my understanding of this play – Shakespeare’s not that simplistic. If they can improve the delivery of the lines considerably, I may find this an OK production, but otherwise it’ll have to remain a less than successful Merchant.

One thought that occurred to me the next day was that the Princes of Morocco and Arragon represent Muslim and Catholic suitors. Not sure if that was an intention of this production, but I’m grateful to it for helping me to this insight.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

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

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

The Merchant Of Venice – July 2007


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

The Merchant Of Venice – March 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Darko Tresnjak

Company: Theatre For A New Audience

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2007

This was just fantastic. I sobbed and sobbed, and all before the interval. Then I sobbed some more during the interval. Then some more during the second half. Great. Oh, and I also laughed a lot. Also great.

The set was wonderful. At the back were some glass screens, overlapping to allow for doorways. In front of these stood three tables, on which stood three Apple Macs, open, with backs facing the audience. Above the Macs were three screens. Up to the start of the play, these displayed a request to turn off mobile phones, pagers and the like, in English, Hebrew and Italian. I’ll describe later displays as I go. The rest of the stage was bare, and pretty much stayed that way – a couple of chairs were brought on for the trial scene, but otherwise the furniture didn’t get in the way of the action. Just how I like it. The overall effect was high-tech industrial, and the program describes the time as “the near future”. We would see later how well they used the technology. Costumes were mainly suits and dresses, with Jessica, as a page boy, wearing a hoodie, and Launcelot Gobbo sporting jeans, t-shirt and trainers for his opening scene. As often happens, the order in which I report these scenes may not be the order in which they appeared on stage.

The play opened with Antonio entering in sombre mode, all over the city gent. His two friends (Solanio and Salerio) come on with a coffee for him, and try to winkle out the cause of his sadness. They’re much younger than him – this Antonio, as so often happens, likes to surround himself with young, good-looking men. They have a jokey way with them, but Antonio refuses to be cheered up. Along comes Bassanio with his mates, Lorenzo and Gratiano, and we get to see how Gratiano simply cannot be made to shut up. His expressive manner reminded me of Jim Carrey – wide eyes and wide, grinning mouth. His joshing with Antonio is off-key, given Antonio’s mood, and so, finally, he heads off with Lorenzo, and we get to see the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio.

This Bassanio seems quite a serious young man compared with most performances I’ve seen. Antonio is obviously besotted with him, though it’s not exaggerated in this production. There’s a later scene where Solanio and Salerio discuss Antonio’s fortunes, or lack of them, and come to a knowing understanding that Antonio dotes on Bassanio, but even that’s not as in your face as some productions. Bassanio soon gets Antonio’s promise to lend him his credit so he can get a loan, and off he goes to try his luck on the Rialto.

The screen display for these scenes is simply numbers – suggesting the financial sector. I haven’t a clue what was on them, if anything, for the next scene, because this was all about Launcelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock. He comes on, looks around him, opens his bag, and takes out a halo headdress, all white and fluffy. He checks out the audience on his right (our left), and spots an older lady in the front row. She’s his conscience, so he heads over and puts the headdress on her. (She’s spotlit, so it’s obviously down to whoever sits in that seat.) Then he pulls out a red headband, with horns on it! Now we know what’s going to happen, so there’s a murmur of enjoyment as we all look to see whose going to get this one! The spotlight lands between a couple sitting on the other side. The woman laughs, as she thinks it’s her partner who’s been picked, but at the last minute Launcelot swerves, and puts it on her head. Great fun. This is the longest intro to this scene I can remember, and then we get a superb reading of the lines. Launcelot is played by a black actor, and although he’s not rapping as such, he does get a huge amount of humour from the rhythm of the words. I know this piece of text reasonably well, and this was one of the best deliveries I’ve heard.

I think the next scene is the meeting between Bassanio and Shylock, and later Antonio. F Murray Abraham played Shylock with a tremendous amount of intelligence and compassion. It’s clear from his portrayal that he seriously hates Antonio, and that he has much justification, based on the way he’s been treated. When describing his mistreatment by Antonio, he takes his handkerchief out of his pocket, as if to wipe away the spittle – his hatred and the memory of the abuse are physically rooted in him. He also gets across the sense that Shylock has a right to feel this way, that he has a valid culture and traditions, and that he’s living in a society that treats him and his fellows as less than human. The Christians have their faults, but this production has the awareness that there’s good and bad on both sides, and stays neutral, allowing the characters to speak as individuals, rather than mouthpieces for one ideology or another. For example, I was very aware, when Antonio makes some angry comment about the Devil quoting scripture, that the very scripture he’s talking about is largely shared between these religions. Anyway, at this point, Shylock is staying very smooth, and holds back the fullness of his emotions for later. He still speaks out pretty strongly against Antonio’s previous treatment of him, but manages to lure him in to the agreement with clever words. Antonio’s rage and contempt came across more than clearly. He may be a good friend to Bassanio, and respected by his fellow traders, but he’s got a mean streak coupled with some nasty prejudices, all perfectly normal for his time and place, though sadly they don’t seem entirely out of place today.

Now the modern technology starts to kick in. At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa discuss the various suitors for Portia’s hand. Portia hands over her mobile to Nerissa, so she can flick through either their pictures or a contact list. The usual banter is well done, and this Portia isn’t shy about admitting her affections for Bassanio when Nerissa mentions him. She’s also very relieved to hear that her flock of suitors is leaving. At this point, her general factotum, Balthazar, enters. Done up in black like a stage manager, and sporting an earpiece, he announces that another suitor is arriving, the Prince of Morocco. His was one of the funniest portrayals of the evening. To get all the information about the Prince’s arrival, he had to manoeuvre round the stage to get a good enough signal on his headset. Then the Prince of Morocco arrives. With the sound of an aeroplane in the background, the Prince, dressed in a vivid pink jumpsuit, bursts onto the stage, trailing his parachute and a ground crew servant. He’s also a black actor, but with bleached hair, and he oozes arrogance and self-belief. After throwing off his chute, he unzips the top of the jumpsuit to give Portia the full benefit of his manly chest, medallion and all. Much laughter. Off they go to prepare for the selection process, with Balthazar eyeing up the Prince’s servant.

Next we see Bassanio organising his party using his mobile to contact people. Lorenzo is also organising his own party – a raid on Shylock’s house to take Jessica away and marry her. The scenes with Jessica follow thick and fast at this point. I suspect it’s because they couldn’t squeeze in the quick changes necessary to flip between Belmont and Venice, but it worked quite well. When Launcelot takes his leave of Shylock, we see Jessica, looking very downtrodden, polishing some silver for her father. Launcelot is unhappy to leave her (he’s got enough luggage!), and she’s very sad to lose his company. (No senior Gobbo this time.) The short time Shylock spends with his daughter during this scene shows very little affection between them – I got the impression that it’s not because he doesn’t love her, it’s just that he doesn’t seem able to express it. Later, when he’s chopping and changing his mind about going to supper with Bassanio, his main concern seems to be his goods, and the sanctity of his home. One nice touch at the end of this section was that Jessica dropped something when she came down to Lorenzo. I didn’t see what it was, but as Shylock returned, he spotted the item, which turned out to be his keys. He realised something was terribly wrong, and ran to check his house. Too late. For Jessica’s whispered conversation with Lorenzo, when he comes to get her, she’s positioned in the first gallery, in the usual gap between the seats, off to our right. I wondered if she would climb down the post (they have footholds), but no, she used the stairs.

Now we get the first stab at the caskets. Balthazar, showing off to the Prince’s servant, goes along the row of Macs, pressing the right button, and up comes the inscription on the screen. First lead, then silver, then gold. Portia and the Prince enter. He’s dressed down, a bit, and before making his choice, takes a scimitar out of the case presented to him by his man, and gives it to Portia. Then he poses for a picture with her, still holding the sword. I liked this Prince of Morocco; he was flash, but not as over the top as some. I got all of his lines clearly, as I did for almost the entire evening. When he made his choice, the “key” Balthazar gives him is a USB stick, which he puts into the Mac’s port. The inscription then dissolves, like a computer virus simulation, to reveal a grinning skull against a background of flames, and the verse is actually a recording. Brilliant. One of the best uses of technology I’ve seen on stage. Off the Prince goes, followed by his servant – much concern from Balthazar, as they’d obviously been getting on so well, but he has to make do with a “call me” gesture.

One little meaningful point – as Portia leaves, she makes some comment about God saving her from all of such complexion. Nerissa is played by a black actress, and she obviously notices and takes offence at this comment, and rightly so. This reminder of Portia’s own prejudices is echoed later on during the trial scene, to good effect. The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, is dispatched pretty quickly – we only need him so we know what’s in the silver box – a fool’s head – and which casket is the right one. His gift to Portia is a lifebelt, and again he poses for pictures, which she’s got used to by this time.

There are a couple of scenes with Solanio and Salerio, giving us the information about Shylock’s suffering and Antonio’s losses. Then we see Shylock directly, as he confronts these two and their taunts. The two set pieces in this play were handled very well, but this one, “Hath not a Jew eyes?…” was the best I’ve ever heard. The whole speech was knit together beautifully, as Shylock’s justification for revenge. His passion really comes out here for the first time, and the standard lines take on the expression of his absolute conviction that he is only doing what he’s seen others do. Instead of being a reminder of our common humanity, the comparisons are a reminder of the gutter we all come from, and in which Shylock is determined to thrive.

Then we have the phone call from Tubal, still in Genoa (or the upper balcony). This was the one time when I couldn’t make out the lines very well, when Shylock was speaking into his phone. But I got enough to find the scene moving, though a bit disjointed. Tubal sends Shylock a picture of the ring, making it easier to understand how he knows which ring it is, and in his reaction to this news, I found myself moved to tears. The line “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” usually moves me, but here I caught a glimpse of the love that this man had been capable of, and which he’s buttoned up in sorrow since his wife’s death, never showing it to his daughter who needs it so much. It was a tremendous insight into this man’s character, and although I know it’s there, it was more clearly expressed tonight than ever before in my experience. As Shylock leaves the stage, full of sadness, we get the interval, and a chance to blow my nose. How thoughtful of them.

At the start of the second half, Bassanio arrives at Belmont, and goes straight to choosing. I noticed that Portia uses “hazard” in her opening lines to him; this word is also in the winning lead inscription – is she trying to give him a subtle hint? His reasoning came across clearly – it may have been cut, but I suspect it was also down to the delivery. Everyone is happy with the result, and Balthazar brings on champagne.  As they’re celebrating, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, bringing the bad news about Antonio. There’s no specific sign that Jessica isn’t being welcomed, although Launcelot is strangely unhappy about being left behind to serve her and Lorenzo. Given that he seemed to like her in Shylock’s house, why the change? The banter between them later on seems pretty nasty.

Nerissa is decidedly not impressed at Portia’s decision to let the men go off before consummating their marriages, and not too happy about heading off to the monastery either.  However, she goes along with Portia’s plan to follow the men to Venice, though with some reservations.

For the trial scene, the Duke was above and behind us, Bassanio to our left, Gratiano and the others on the upper gallery. Two modern, plastic chairs were brought on, and the centre table brought forward. Shylock puts his scales on these, then unwraps a piece of meat to use as a weight. Antonio is in orange prison garb, with his hands taped together. He’s put in one of the chairs. Shylock is smooth, implacable, and makes it clear he’s out for vengeance. Nerissa enters, to explain that the young Balthazar (Portia’s name in disguise) has come from the other lawyer to give the court the benefit of his advice. One nice touch here is that the actual Balthazar is also with them, with a fake moustache.

Portia and Nerissa are dressed in smart suits, and wearing small moustaches. These disguises are good ones, not that that should stop Bassanio and Gratiano seeing through them. But, as usual, they don’t. The trial follows its usual course, and Antonio is clearly ready for the knife.  The “quality of mercy” speech was a little lacking here.  I didn’t feel Portia was giving it her all, but still there was a fair bit of tension throughout the scene. Bassanio is with Antonio as Shylock prepares to cut, while Antonio’s hands have been taped to the chair. Shylock has Antonio by the neck, reaching round from behind to make the incision, when Portia stops him, and metes out the justice he had been so keen to have. It’s noticeable here how she, such a strong advocate for mercy, is adamant that now Shylock shall have only justice and the law. This is where I find the echo of her earlier prejudice. She may be slow to take offence, but when she does…..! There’s definitely an edge to her delivery of justice. When Shylock is told he will have to convert to Christianity, he reels, and falls to the ground behind the table. Antonio snatches off his skull cap, leaving the poor man distraught.

This scene brings up such mixed emotions, such is the skill of the writing, and the skill of these performers. There’s nothing much to rejoice in here, as no one has behaved particularly well. But Shylock is in such despair that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the lawyers take their leave, Portia is obviously relieved that Bassanio won’t part with his ring. Antonio, probably out of jealousy, urges him to send it after the lawyer, and Bassanio does. There could be problems coming up in this marriage. Portia and Nerissa are still in their suits when they get back to Belmont, and yet their husbands still don’t spot what’s happened, till they come back on in full disguise, with moustaches. The ring bit was as funny as ever, and I always love the way Gratiano rats out Bassanio. Antonio has been happy again, in Bassanio’s company, but is naturally depressed again when he finds out the ring was actually given to Portia, and he’s lost Bassanio after all.

Before they get back to Belmont, we see Jessica and Lorenzo, in bathrobes, having their little lovers’ tiff. On the whole, this is fairly light, but turns sour when Lorenzo mentions her stealing away from her father. She seems to be suffering from guilt and grief at betraying him. Shylock’s skull cap is still lying on the stage where Antonio threw it during the courtroom scene, and Jessica picks it up. By the end, she seems to have come to terms with her decision to run away and marry a Christian, and as she rejoins Lorenzo, they appear to be reconciled. (And Lorenzo’s got a nice bum.)

This was a fabulous production, and I’m really glad we saw it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at