Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Merchant of Venice - Liverpool Playhouse

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller Theatre celebrates 10 years of producing Shakespeare, with a double bill of the bards’ contrasting plays ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ I had the pleasure of experiencing the latter of these at Liverpool’s playhouse theatre and I strongly urge you to see this whilst it’s touring.

‘The Merchant of Venice’, described as one of Shakespeare’s ‘Problem plays’ has been given a beautiful modern twist by Propeller, who have made full use of the subtler comic observations prevalent within the text. For those of you unfamiliar with the plot-line of ‘Merchant of Venice’, it centres around the Jew Shylock’s revenge on Antonio, the Christian who owes him a debt, and the triplex of love stories, led by the romance between Portia and Bassanio. Shylock lusts for a pound of Antonio’s flesh; whilst Portia, waiting to be wooed by her true love is bound by her father’s will to marry whomever can solve the riddle of the three caskets. The numerous issues that are dealt with within this play range from financial and legal to romantic and religious.

As soon as you enter the theatre, the first thing that strikes you is the imposing presence of the set; a three storey prison block. Designer Michael Pavelka has to be applauded for the creation of such an imaginative and multi – functional set. Additionally, the decision to move the action of the play from Elizabethan Venice to a prison community is nothing short of inspired. The themes of corruption, status, seething tensions, circulation of money, ferocious intolerance and the ‘female’ characters being portrayed as the inmates ‘bitches’ (think ‘the sisters’ in the Shawshank Redemption) all fit perfectly within this framework and mentality.

Edward Hall has often highlighted the importance within Propeller’s productions of giving ultimate control to the actors in the creation of the story, and this has certainly been achieved in this production. The 14 strong cast are an ensemble in the true sense of the word, and it is the quality of the acting and story-telling within this production that kept me transfixed throughout. The music is beautifully created by the ensemble who all sing and use percussion to underscore scenes, introduce characters and ultimately build up the dramatic atmosphere of the play.

A mention has to be given to the ‘women’ of the play. Kelsey Brookfield gives a mesmerising performance as the strong minded Portia, never threatening to slip into overtly camp. Instead Brookfield manages to create a delicately measured femininity and complexity, ultimately making Portia thoroughly believable. There is no need in a performance with such a high standard of storytelling to have the ‘women’ adorned in panto dame wigs or stuffed curves. Portia and the fishnet tights clad, bare nippled Nerissa (played with ease and conviction by Chris Myles) are convincing and utterly absorbing. It is this conviction that also makes the relationship between Portia and Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) work so well. The chemistry between the two is excellent throughout.

Richard Clothier also turns in a solid performance as a largely unsympathetic and disdainful Shylock. This particular production has certainly focused on this character as a tormentor as opposed to the tormented and Clothier portrays the awkward and grotesque Shylock effortlessly.

This production has undeniably been directed with style by Edward Hall. The all-male cast has been utilised fully to highlight the obvious theme of homo-eroticism. Hall has also ensured that the story-telling throughout is clear and the bitingly modern and topical theme of conflicting religious beliefs (and the destructive consequences these beliefs can have) is impossible to ignore or overlook.

There is never a point within this production that you feel your attention waning. The direction is fast paced, the staging imaginative and the story is delivered by the committed cast with clarity and accessibility. This is a fantastic interpretation of a text which Edward Hall describes as ‘a play for today’. Go and experience it before it heads abroad this summer.
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