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Merchant of Venice, 2014

Bell’s other 2014 production made some bold choices where some directors often equivocate and I think this is particularly necessary in a short production.  The stretched out implications of ambiguous portrayals take too long for the CSF’s approximately “two hours’ traffic” of stage time.

I’m thinking of things like the opening line to which  gave the clear meaning of Antonio losing his male lover/comrade. It is good to make sense of that famous opening hook or otherwise it is, although intriguing, jut left hanging and Shakespeare’s opening lines are always key. It would be beyond uncharacteristic for the question of Antonio’s sadness to be an unexplained tease.  So, it needs to spring from ‘homo-eroticism’ or, at the very least, male camaraderie/horseplay shot through with sexual tension as here. This is what Antonio will lose if Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia is successful.

The casket scene made it clear that Portia decides, she picks her husband despite her father’s intentions. So she defies her father just like Jessica does, this production made an interesting bond betwixt those two stories and so also linked Shylock to Portia’s dead father. (That tawdry relationship of Jessica’s with Lorenzo, and reasons behind it, was well handled.  I really believed in the characters.) 

I normally favour Elizabethan costumes but the non-specific more modern garb worked well, especially Portia  and Nerissa as they changed moving from elegant dresses to male lawyers.  I was a bit distracted by Max Sterne appearing dressed as he was in Pericles but it underlined the fairy-tale link between the two tales and would not have mattered to anyone who was unlucky enough to miss out on Pericles.

It was good to see the Belmont atmosphere not done up as a kind of Forest of Arden "green world" escape as it clearly isn't meant to be that.

Portia’s famous speech was excellent. It was a fine idea to have her start hesitantly, grasping for a way out of the situation/something to say.  Her increase in confidence and power, building to her fully realised and horribly malicious final attack on Shylock was frighteningly convincing. Charles McGuire’s Shylock was brilliant, such a strong performance, it was unbearable when he was destroyed.  He did rages so well, and especially suppressed, simmering rage and worry – his shaking hand will live with me forever. 

Finally, it was interesting to end with Jessica and  Lorenzo on the bench, left us a lot to ponder, wrong-footed us before the air and mind clearing (partially) jig which, as it was in King Lear in 2012 was a most excellent and satisfying way to end the performance.