Friday, October 23, 2015

The Merchant of Venice - religious intolerance & bridging loans (Baby Grand until Saturday 24 by C21 Theatre)

Did anyone not study The Merchant of Venice at school? It’s one of the most accessible Shakespeare plays, and one of the few that I’m at all familiar with. For anyone needing a quick reminder, there are two overlapping subplots. Firstly there’s what would today be a reality show concept to find a husband for Portia (played by Colette Lennon). Her father left instructions about how to judge the suitor who deserved his daughter’s hand and a share of her inheritance. A lot revolves around whether they choose a gold box, a silver box or a dull iron box … Noel Edmonds would be in his element.

The second subplot revolves around an unlikely suitor Bassanio (Adrian Cooke) who asks a friend Antionio (Adam Dougal) for money to finance his wooing of Portia. It’s a fine bromance: since Antonio’s capital is tied up in ships that are still out at sea, he approaches the Banker a money lender, Shylock (Nick Hardin), for a bridging loan of three thousand ducats.

C21 Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice transports the action to the post-depression wild living of the Roaring Twenties of post-WW1 America. The extended speechless introduction introduces the period and many of the suitably costumed characters interact in the public square. We see Antonio spit as he passes Shylock in the street.
“My mercthandice makes me nat saad”

While the set is formed from plain white boxes, the costumes and hats are authentic for the 1920s and American twang is consistently used across the seventy minute performance.

There is a lot of comedy in the portrayal of the suitors (Mark Claney) who fly in sail in from around the world and select the wrong box. The disguises of Portia and her maid Nerissa (Megan Armitage) include impossibly long moustaches and pinstripe suits.

The play’s pivotal moment of peril comes when Antonio’s ships don’t arrive in port and he can’t pay back Shylock. His interest free loan came with a forfeit for non-payment: one pound of flesh. It is left to a court to decide his fate.

The production balances staying on the right side of frivolous - Colette Lennon’s eyebrows and shrugs add to the levity - while making clear the rampant anti-Semitism. You can’t take your eyes off Nick Hardin’s Shylock: he may have been vengeful and polishing his sharp knife, but the abuse he took from the so-called Christian society was shocking.

Does good triumph over evil? The Christians (and the biased judiciary) certainly throw their weight around and gang up on “the Jew” … the former practically win the lottery, while the latter “inhumane wretch” loses everything including his wealth, his daughter and his faith (forced to convert to Christianity).

There are anachronisms aplenty including the lilt of American accents in a Venetian courtroom! Prolonged scene changes lift the production’s foot off the accelerator and slow down the pace and I fear that I’ll be humming the Maple Leaf Rag for the rest of the day.

Arthur Webb has gone a great job paring down Shakespeare’s text and directing this production. The school’s audience at today’s audience seemed to love it (and didn’t fidget) as the cast brought the characters to life. No one will be rushing to a pay day lender after the show. But they’ll be on the lookout for religious intolerance.

You can catch The Merchant of Venice in the Baby Grand (Grand Opera House) until Saturday 24th.

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