"Great Potential From Good Company"
by Lexi Wolfe for remotegoat on 23/03/18

I had, overall, a really nice time watching this Am-Dram production of The Merchant of Venice. This was my first time watching it full-length on the stage and I was not overly disappointed.

The modern picture of Venice which we were greeted with sadly did not put me in mind of the WWII theme that was promised, and the theme continued to be more of an observance rather than having any real bearing on the proceedings throughout the main body of the show, and felt like more of an afternote than a real decision. It was somewhat superfluous and, arguably, rather unnecessary. Beyond this, the production was overall of good quality and the suspension of disbelief applicable.

The overall pace of the piece was nice, and kept its audience engaged well throughout - the energy was high and the knowledge of what was being said had obviously been thoroughly investigated - a rare treat at times, even in professional performances! I was enthused to see how much of a Regular Chap Shylock was portrayed as, instead of the customary unbearable caricature one sees right from the beginning, that causes much condemnation in our supposedly enlightened age. Overall, Antonio arguably had the greatest gravitas onstage and was one of the most believable in his delivery. Gratiano and Nerissa also were portrayed by competent, thinking actors, which is delightful and entertaining to see. I quickly fell in love with the Old Gobbo / Stefano characters and wished the actor had been given a larger part. The gentleman playing the Moroccan Prince - while breaking my belief for a moment as he himself was not quite as dark as Shakespeare’s words decreed (though this IS Am-Dram and if you have not a Person of Colour in the company, well…) - was another of great gravitas and I very much enjoyed his few minutes onstage. He played a near secondary villain with aplomb. All others too were watchable, well-versed and entertaining. No one seemed to drop the proverbial ball, and the Players have a good dynamic in this group.

Most of the things one could nitpick over different performers were the usual suspects - several of the actors had their backs pretty much to the audience for whole sentences, for example, and the stumbling over certain phrases by different actors very understandable given that while it might sound good, some of the phrases in this particular Shakespearean piece are more than a little difficult to trip off the tongue. There is also the terrible habit that is so easy to fall into, wherein actors speak to one another and address nothing out to the audience at opportune times so we can be let into their world. At times, this leaves the audience feeling a little distant and trying to keep up with the actors’ (and writer’s) choices.

Portia, however much of a good actress I’m sure she was, was very difficult to find charming as the person described in Shakespeare’s text. Her movements were somewhat stiff and at times, she looked very awkward and uncomfortable onstage. Portia is one of Shakespeare’s more brilliant women, so I would have liked to have seen more of this through the performance. Incredibly distractingly, her head and occasionally the top part of her body seemed to move and almost jerk about with every other word she uttered, adding to the appearance that the actress herself was uncomfortable, though in her moments of stillness, ironically, one could see her potential.

Shylock, too, sadly went down a little in my estimation as the play progressed as there is an incredible amount of scope for the actor to really show the obsessional nature of the character, the inner torment of his escaped daughter and her betrayal, and his vicious determination to have something from those who have so tirelessly mocked him. The actor did not really Go There except in flashes in the court scene. He was at times almost too pensive and not villainous enough. He too moved oddly specifically in the court scene, the energy for which should have been transposed into energy of spirit instead.

The part that bugged me greatly was the ending, however. With the haunting image of Auschwitz in the snow looming over the actors, Shylock, complete with the detestable Yellow Star of David on his jacket, is accompanied by his seemingly somewhat-repentant daughter across the stage, suitcase in hand and dour look on his face. However, Antonio has already stipulated that Shylock become a Christian and while Mussolini (the contemporary Italian Prime Minister and Fascist Party Leader at the time) made some reprehensible laws regarding Jews during this time, even in Germany, conversion was still possible. However, for the Concentration Camps to be a viable option for sending Shylock to, this would means laws would already have been passed which would have made Shylock’s position and ability to carry out business, as a Jew, virtually impossible for a year or two. It is the part wherein I feel the great sentiment attempting to be gotten across in the play falls down somewhat, and begins to come across as an apology for the abysmal way that previous Europeans (I include ourselves as British people) had treated Jewish people. This is somewhat undermining, I find. Shakespeare spoke from a specific time and viewpoint and in as much as we cannot pave over the blatant racism towards Othello in that play, or the cringeworthy, archaic sexism in The Taming Of The Shrew, we should not attempt to plaster over past attitudes in the hope that the younger generations will remember how brutal we have been and simply choose to be kinder. If Shylock had only walked onto stage with the yellow badge (which would have been odd in itself, as they’re miles away from Venice and how would he travel there, considering he has an armed guard with him?) this might have had a better effect, and left the audience’s imagination to fill in the rest. CAN he convert now? What is next for him? What has become of the Duke’s decrees and rulings? The final photograph should be abandoned, as it begs more questions than it answers. The director says in his notes he has attempted to ‘give the play back to Shylock’, which, while a worthy idea, does not necessarily work when the script itself is so palpably against this character. A better way to do this is always to craft a character that the audience can see into the soul thereof. While this started out with great potential in mind, it doesn’t quite reach its target.

On the whole, I did enjoy the show and would definitely watch the company again. I would love to see another Shakespeare piece undertaken by them, with a theme better undertaken. I would really like the company to challenge themselves again in the future.

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