Saturday, 15 September 2007

The Merchant of Venice - Arcola Theatre

Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Arcola Theatre: 11th September - 13th October
Directed by Julia Pascal.

Reviewed by : zahid fayyaz

They are many ways of staging Shakespeare: from having it set in a artic wasteland, to having it played by an all female cast, to even, in one particularly misguided production at Edinburgh, having it performed in a hop hop style. Pascal theatre company’s adaptation of the Merchant of Venice is certainly different therefore, but not uniquely so. Set in the first Jewish Ghetto in Venice, it’s a ‘play within a play’ structurally. Whilst on tour at the Ghetto, Holocaust survivor Sarah witnesses a dress rehearsal for a production of the Merchant of Venice, and it bring back memories of both her own flight and experience in the Warsaw ghetto, and generally ‘flashes back’ to examples of Anti-Semitism throughout the ages.

So, that’s the concept but does it work? Well, it certainly has spirit and they give it their best shot. There is music, dancing and period costumes. The set is also very evocative of an old, crumbling city space. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the acting either with the whole cast giving it their all. In particular, Ruth Posner as Sarah gave a stand out performance, particularly in the scene were she is remembering her father or describing her past running away from the Nazis. Paul Hezberg as Shylock also deserves plaudits, for a portrayal which is both moving in its depiction of him as a man often scorned by society, and also quite vicious because of that, as shown by the rejection of his daughter.

However, the main problem with the play is that it is smacking the audience around the head with its themes. The idea of the play is that the Merchant of Venice may have been Anti-Semitic, either deliberately or inadvertently. To that end, we get cut aways of Jewish characters being harassed and abused, but because it’s so openly out there, it quickly becomes rather staid. A little subtlety would have made the show drag a lot less, and there are points were subtlety does work well. For example, when Portia says when a black suitor fails that she hopes people ‘of that complexion’ fails, it shows the latent racism a lot better than any amount of scenes which bangs your ahead against it. Also, in terms of flaws, Sarah interacting with Jessica does not work at all, and is embarrassing at times. So overall, it is a brave idea, competently executed, with some very bright spots, but also with some major flaws preventing it being great.

Photos: Top - Paul Herzberg as Shylock & Jodi Talbot as Jessica. Bottom - Timothy Dewberry as Tubal & Paul Herzberg as Shylock.
The Merchant of Venice runs at The Arcola Theatre until the 13th October for more information visit
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