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  The Merchant of Venice
Globe Theatre, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 24 July 2007

Let’s start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: in The Merchant of Venice, Britain’s greatest playwright offers a romantic comedy in which the main villain is Jewish. This villain’s Jewishness is central to the depiction of his villainy. The play remains a romantic comedy. One in much the same vein as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, concerned primarily with a group of young bucks wooing and marrying a selection of eligible young ladies. In our more enlightened times this makes for periodically uncomfortable viewing.

In the past century directors have sought to mitigate the play’s robust Jew-hating by variously making Shylock as sympathetic a character as humanly possible; portraying all the other characters in the play as complete shits; and occasionally setting the play in Fascist Italy, or similar. In the light of this, director Rebecca Gatward does well to refuse such pleas of mitigation. This Merchant comes about as close to capturing the original spirit of the play as a modern production will dare. While John McEnery’s Shylock is still afforded some humanity, he is equally allowed the full range of wickedness and cackling that the part demands.

Elephant dispatched, it is always surprising how little of the play is actually taken up with Shylock. Despite the enormous shadow he casts over critical debates over the play, he is far from being the focus of the plot compared to the titular Merchant Antonio and his profligate young friend Bassanio, who are here presented in an unambiguously romantic friendship, with the older merchant clearly playing sugar-daddy to his young, pretty friend. When Antonio speaks of his love for Bassanio we are left in no doubt how serious he is. Bassanio’s feelings on the matter are left more opaque - he does, after all, spend the course of the play in pursuit of a woman whom he eventually marries.

For all this darkness at the heart of the play Gatward’s production is like a carnival in full swing. From the Venetian ladyboy flitting round the groundlings before the play opens to the brilliant use of the crowd throughout the production, the overall atmosphere is one of gaiety and sexual licence. There is an easy complicity between the main characters on stage and the audience, knowing looks are easily exchanged and bawdy looks proffered - when the prince of Morocco (exoticised to a point that would have Edward Said spinning in his grave) comes to court Portia, there is little doubt left in the audience’s mind that he could have his pick of her attendants, male or female. Kirsty Besterman makes a splendidly perky, saucy Portia, while Philip Cumbus’ Bassanio is suitably rakish as her suitor; still retaining a coltish charm for Antonio and heroic boyishness enough to inspire devotion in his friends. Craig Gazey even manages to make something funny out of one of Shakespeare’s most tedious clowns, playing Launcelot Gobbo as a gormless, camp northerner in a way that wouldn’t look out of place on Little Britain; while Leander Deeny generates more laughs than should reasonably be expected with his adorably camp turn as Portia’s manservant.

And there you have it. Effervescent rom-com fun in a heady atmosphere of sexual licence, underpinned by a tragic story of lost male love and an atmosphere of violent racial hatred. Quite an astonishing evening, all told. But in spite of the potential seriousness, one which is essentially an enormous amount of fun.


Till 6 October 2007


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