In my opinion there is no better place to see Shakespeare than at the Globe. True to form, Shakespeare’s theatre was used to its best advantage last night with Rebecca Gatward’s production of The Merchant of Venice. The evening began with the three friends Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo leering at the ladies in the audience from the middle balcony, their caddish, jovial behaviour worked a treat in getting the audience keyed up. Despite the miserable weather the crowd was in high spirits from the get go and the high energy levels of the cast, especially the aforementioned trio, kept the three hour long production from sinking into what could have been serious tediousness.
For those not familiar with the plot, debt-ridden Bassanio (played by Philip Cumbus) needs to borrow 3,000 ducats from his good friend Antonio, a well-liked merchant of Venice, so he can finance a trip to Belmont, to court the beautiful and wealthy Portia (Kirsty Besterman). Antonio’s money is tied up in shipments away from Venice, so he approaches Shylock (John McEnery), a Jewish money-lender. Shylock agrees to furnish him with the funds, but only on the condition that if the loan is not repaid, he be allowed to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio. Antonio, like all the other Christians in Venice, has frequently made disparaging remarks about Shylock, so when the payment is not made, Shylock demands his due, seeing in this action revenge on all who have abused him.
In spite of some serious setbacks including the part of Portia being recast following the withdrawal of Michelle Duncan and, midway through the opening night, the actor playing Gratiano having to retire owing to gastric illness; the cast last night were in excellent form and the production buzzed from start to finish. Philip Cumbus, as Bassiano, displays some excellent comic flourishes while managing to look, with all his charm and cheek, strikingly like a young Ewan McGregor. Kirsty Besterman, who replaced Duncan as Portia, claims the role for her own and gets many laughs as she rolls her eyes at her prospective suitors but also portrays the underlying nastiness and sharp intelligence needed for the role. The suitors themselves, have some of Shakespeare’s best one-liners and gave the long evening some of its most entertaining and hilarious moments.
Christopher Obi as the Prince of Morocco, is amusingly endearing while Philip Bird wrested maximum hilarity from his role as the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon with a Spanish accent I hadn’t heard since Fawlty Towers’ Manuel. McEnery never let Shylock’s long-simmering anger at his position in Venetian society get far from the surface and successfully portrays a man embittered to his very soul. By contrast, Dale Rapley keeps Antonio more under wraps, trapped in an impossible homoerotic relationship with Bassanio, never showing fear or hate, even as his life is about to end. The only performance that did disappoint was a somewhat too over-the-top portrayal of Launcelot Gobbo playing the part of the fool as Shylock’s defecting servant.
Unusually for the Globe, there’s an actual set courtesy of Liz Cooke. The famous Rialto bridge traverses the groundlings’ area, brilliantly drawing the audience in and allowing the action to spill out into the audience in true period fashion. Unfortunately, we cannot know how the play was performed in Shakespeare’s day. Would the audience would have laughed at Shylock’s famous speech wherein he rails against Christian prejudice and shows a glimpse of his true humanity? Would they have cheered during his forced conversion? McEnery certainly plays Shylock as a frail figure, and when the tables are turned on him in court he becomes utterly pitiful, his bile for his tormentors having forced him to lose everything he holds dear, including his own identity. This staging of the play is the closest we will ever get to being a part of that Elizabethan audience as the whole production draws on the involving the audience and we see the Globe at its best, entertaining and provoking the masses. Gatward’s production allows us to see Shakespeare through fresh eyes anew, bringing out the comedy of the play; she is not afraid to play on the sexual puns and let the audience engage fully and freely with the actors, and they certainly gasped and laughed in good measure. Yet, for all of the play’s humour, romance and light touches, there is a darkness beneath. It’s a darkness that leaves Shylock utterly crushed and Antonio completely alone, while the lovers dance around him. It seems a fate that could visit any of the younger superficial characters, but one that is blissfully ignored by the arrogance of youth. Shakespeare’s text reveals a multitude of double standards, and its competing claims of justice and mercy make it timeless, so much so that it is still considered a hot potato 400 years after it was written.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "[John McEnery ] Bland performance" LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "The jolliest Merchant I have ever seen." ALISTER SMITH for THE STAGE says, "One would struggle to find a lighter, funnier version." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "Lack of vigour and conviction makes the whole slow going." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The Globe has a knack of throwing fresh light on plays, and so it proves again here." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "John McEnery gives such an anaemic performance as a cadaverous Shylock that the character's memory fails to cast much guilt over the final act."
Production photo by John Tramper