Monday, October 05, 2015

Preview - The Merchant of Venice (C21 Theatre, Baby Grand 20-24 October + NI tour)

The Merchant of Venice is the only work by Shakespeare that I can remember studying at school. [Third Form with Mr Duffy?] It’s part of the current GSCE syllabus and it’s the play that Arthur Webb has chosen as he returns to direct Shakespeare for the third time with C21 Theatre Company.

The issues in the good versus evil ‘comedy’ are contemporary: moneylenders; people up to their necks in debt they cannot repay; a contest to the win the hand of a beautiful woman (which sounds like a format that could be sold to today’s TV broadcasters); religious intolerance; along with fears over justice.

I caught up with director Arthur Webb in the company’s South Belfast rehearsal space last week and he explained that the two main themes of his production are “love and hate”.
“The love that Portia has for Bassanio is amazing yet she has to go through the will her father left her to find all these suitors who are coming in from every part of the world to marry her. And Bassanio has no money so he has to get money to be a relevant suitor. But is he in love with her? Or is he just an opportunist? There’s another passionate love between Jessica and Lorenzo: she runs away with a Christian …

The “hate that Antonio has for a Jew [Shylock]” is echoed by other characters in the play too. Arthur suggests:
“... if this play was written today by a contemporary writer there’d be rioting outside the theatre.”
C21 steered away from setting the Merchant of Venice in modern times, but instead chose 1920s post-WW1 America where people who had been “suppressed, depressed, anxious, worried, sad ... suddenly they go wild” in the Roaring Twenties with its more entrepreneurial spirit tinged with feelings of anger and demand for revenge.

The themes, the characters and the stories are why Arthur thinks Shakespeare’s drama is still so strong today.

In the spirit of Morecambe and Wise’s “all of the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”, one of his tricks to adapt old texts for modern day audiences is to do “a little bit of juxtaposing and taking a half line here and a half line there” as well as repeating lines or swapping them between characters to make the play as engaging as possible for audiences.

Full of characters that audiences should be able to identify with – including Antonio the entrepreneurial loner – The Merchant of Venice is a seventy minute production and is touring Northern Ireland from today (Ballymena, Coleraine, Strabane, Armagh, Downpatrick) before a week long run in the Baby Grand (Grand Opera House) from Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 October (tickets £8.50–£13).

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