I’ve made a vow to not see any plays I’ve seen before, but I decided that, since I’d last seen Merchant of Venice in the early 80s, I could safely say I couldn’t remember a bit of it and so it would practically be new. Besides, I was going to review it, and I couldn’t let a desire to avoid rehashes of overdone shows keep me from seeing something possibly excellent. Malachite Theater‘s Titus was so good I actually saw it twice: could they repeat this great success?
In retrospect, it was probably a bit much to expect a piece that would shake me to the bones like Titus; but I think making Merchant watchable was a real accomplishment. Benjamin Blyth’s approach was to take it as a comedy, and I realized, in retrospect, that it IS one, despite being so incredibly depressing: a play with marriages, gender-switching, and no characters dead at the end is Shakespeare being funny. And, for Shakespeare, making fun of a Jewish person for being grasping was comic; and for a miser’s daughter runs away (to marry) and for Shylock to be forced to renounce his religion was, by the standards of the time, a happy ending for everyone.
This play isn’t really about Shylock (Stephen Connery-Brown), though: it’s about Bassanio (Charlie Woollhead)’s attempt to win the hand of Portia (Lucy Kilpatrick) with the help of his friend Antonio (Simon Chappell); Portia’s attempt to deal with the comic results of her father’s will; and, to some extent,
Jessica (Claire-Monique Martin)’s attempts to forge a life for herself. While I was able to whole-heartedly laugh at Portia and Nerissa (Danielle Larose)’s careful management of Portia’s suitors, I found myself cringing at the callous anti-semitism both of the anti-Shylock contingent (nearly everyone) and even that of Jessica’s boyfriend’s circle. On the other hand I found this language mirrored in what I’ve heard people say about Muslims these days: the same kind of broad generalization, suspicions, and mean-spiritedness. Perhaps humans just feel the need to have an “other” against whom they can rally, whether it’s people of a different religion, from a different continent, or just welfare recipients.
While I found the language enjoyable, I struggled to hear it too much; St Leonard’s seemed to be working hard against the cast, and any time a person spoke with his back to the me (I sat in a corner of the front row), I completely lost what they were saying. I realize it might make things clunky if this space was treated simply as a proscenium, but it might do the audience a favor in terms of comprehensibility. And the pacing was good – just about two hours, which is about all I want to do these days. So while I enjoyed the performances, I can’t say that I care for this play, but I’ll still be eager to see what the Malachites do next.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 2nd 2014. It continues through April 19th: tickets are available on SeeTickets and reasonably priced at £12.)