Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld and produced by Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld. Designed by Conor Baum and Joanna Rosenfeld with the support of Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Armbands by Katey Ann Fraser.
Music Arranged by Katarina Henderson and performed by Katarina and Alissandra Henderson, Ava Dodsworth, Izzie Early and Andrew Hoggarth.
Set Pieces and lighting provided by IC Theatre Brighton. Next mystery play on 14th and 15th August.
A swirl of mackintoshes with a ballet of porting suitcases, raised at one point over heads in a spellbinding opening choreography. A ship’s on the open sea of leather, and we’re in the open air.
Just as well. Yesterday we needed those macs with rain pouring and both performances occur on the second day.
So the third of six One Fell Swoop’s Unlocked Shakespeare unleashes at a drying St Ann’s. It has to be… The Merchant of Venice and these people are refugees, birds of passage. To complement them people in buff shirts, trousers black ties and a breeding of black armbands with red device. First one, two, ten… As the play progresses, more wear them.
It’s only there in the creeping dress-code but we get it: 1930s Venice with Mussolini being pushed by Hitler to enact inexorably tightening laws. Venice and maybe not good to be Jewish. Again. Keep your suitcase ready.
And then there’s the music arranged by Katarina Henderson and performed by Katarina and Alissandra Henderson, Ava Dodsworth, Izzie Early and Andrew Hoggarth. Kurt Weill’s Speak Low (when you speak love)’ from his 1941 One Touch of Venus opens and closes the show, sung seductively. There’s Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Falling In Love Again’ and arrangements for two violins. It’s frankly as good as any incidental music in a production outside the RSC.
Shylock’s ambivalence makes us shift. Uncomfortably. Sympathy ebbs and flows with facets of Shylock’s wrongs. Act IV’s ‘villainy’ where as all the cast point out he ‘stands for nothing but law’ cuts back to the pain in Shylock’s Act III speech and a single telling moment.
Absconding daughter Jessica has stolen the ring Shylock’s future wife, her mother Leah gave him, swapped (apparently) casually for a monkey. ‘I would not have parted with it for a wilderness of monkeys.’ Its pathos can get swallowed up, but then we end Act V on the words ‘Nerissa’s ring’ after the strange foreplay of ring-giving. The one lost, the only one detailed (a turquoise) is still Leah’s.
The One Fell Swoop Project’s Shakespeare has become serious. The Merchant of Venice finds the OFS cast deeply engaged with the play’s edginess. There’s shifts in performance history – notably the three in 2015: Almeida, Globe particularly, and RSC; and grappling with anti-Semitism.
Rosenfeld was once told how to act in her first Shakespeare play at just fifteen: ‘Embrace your inner racist.’ That was in Germany. Edgy powerful direction. Now Rosenfeld brings that edge and shapes a potentially great reading of this relatively brief 1597 play.
Ross Gurney-Randall’s takes on wearily-rasped merchant Antonio, first major character to establish themselves: Antonio resignedly embraces death like a bride – on his friend Bassanio’s ambivalent love or impaled on Shylock’s knife-point, whichever’s sharper.
Gurney-Randall – a consummate Shakespearean – considers Antonio weary to sacrifice, abasing himself for Bassanio’s remembrance. He’s far older than his beau, there’s no sense here of a direct sexual current between him and Miles Mlambo’s Bassanio. The love of an older man for a younger is perennially unrequited; long before the opening. Gurney-Randall’s gifting Bassanio a living will. His Antonio’s already lost. He plays him through to his quiet solitary end where he doesn’t join the revellers but sits alone.
A new company member Nimmy March takes on Shylock and shakes her somewhere we’ve not been, with every ‘dog’ turned seethingly to ‘bitch’ and it truly bites. It’s a revelation and highlight of this production. March, a consummate professional, reinvents Shylock completely and she’s a delight to watch, centring her in powerful antagonism to Gurney-Randall – and their relationship is the one to watch here, rather than Gurney-Randall’s with young Bassanio.
Shylock measures Antonio. Shylock’s slowly stripped dignity rises with revenge, pointed declamations sharpening with every indignity. Her language rings and tangs. From the start and to the end, both times carrying her refugee’s suitcase, she makes the point. There is no place here for Jews. Get out or get deported east.
There’s a ghost of the Jonathan Pryce Globe performance here, but March adds a steely entrapment of her own, a road-metalled tread of verse-speaking. Her thinking up the bond isn’t a spontaneous human act but one uncoiling like a spring.
March’s Shylock in Act III carries the emotional mainsprings – that great speech and the loss of the ring and ‘my daughter and my jewels’ as parodied by scoffers where Andrew Hoggarth’s Tubal almost pricks her to bleed. March’s quick rationale is a stung Shylock whose disasters impel action. Gone is the leisure to pursue revenge: calamities sting here and March’s Shylock now reels, settling on measured ferocity.
March is alert with a quivering energy and skirling disregard for Venetian hatred. Shylock’s completely environed by enemies in court. March delivers the devastation of those last words sitting distractedly almost from beyond the grave: ‘I am content.’
Portia is taken with warmth, passion and slinky wisdom by the real find of the first of this season’s plays two weeks ago (Merry Wives) Rachel Mullock. who finds with Katey Fraser’s slightly funky Nerissa a common cause and a slightly girly collusion when all the male flesh parades through their doors. Mullock gets the underlying warmth of Portia, the desire that impels her throughout Act III where ironic poise gives on to passion, then sheer action.
Mullock’s warmth also absorbs – and absolves – Portia’s equalling Antonio’s self-abnegation by making him clear owner (as lottery winner) of herself, something promptly subverted in the following acts.
Mullock is a glint-edged smooth-tongued dispenser of justice too: she proclaims earlier then sees through the boyish piping she confides to Nerissa before telling her why (it’s good we get that speech here). Gone is veiled intent, and here the court of clear day sits on her brow.
Mullock’s Portia possesses in Act IV a boyish misdirecting charm, where she relentlessly slides back a bolt. Portia has these in reserve, the quibbling harsh playfulness over the rings glints with a silver-hard finger in a velvet glove.
Mlambo’s Bassanio is appealing, tall, handsomely unsure of himself as an underlying subtext of Bassiano suggests. Late on he jumps about with all the physicality he needs. His challenge is to inhabit the braggadocio text where Bassanio’s charm carries all before him.
Mlambo’s is a headlong interpretation to exonerate Bassanio of calculated venality. There’s no sexual chemistry with Gurney-Randall and you feel the older Antonio here hides his love.
Mlambo’s Bassanio seems overwhelmed by Rachel Mullock’s sexy encouraging Portia: their pent-up attraction explodes to embraces after he passes the lead/lad test. A beautifully placed burst of singing pulls from most of his choosing speech, and much of this might be cut, since the music inevitably wins.
Mlambo does boyish appeal well, though his relaxed deportment makes him seem a man who can’t believe his luck and spins round in a love daze for the rest of the play, snapping to in the trial scene. And the more fleet more importunate semi-hero, haggling and pleading at the end over the rings.
Katy Ann Fraser’s Nerissa enjoys an arch seconding of her mistress, as well as a frank appraisal – as Nerissas all must have – of male talent on show. Fraser played Nerissa on last year’s OFS zoom (when Conor Baum cast her) and she’s wholly inside this role.
Fraser in a quick-change also invests the ill-choosing Morocco (here rechristened Monaco) with dignity and some reflective warmth – Portia finds him the most palatable of suitors after Bassanio though originally couldn’t resist a racist jibe (happily, logically cut here).
Nerissa’s beau Gratiano is a delight in Ben Baeza’s hands. His voice follows through thought, his presence is often imposing, Baeza darts back and forth, roars up where needed and as he has the last lines in the play, makes them tell. There’s a dark with in Baeza’s Gratiano. He scents out the sheer nasty undercurrent in the armband-wearer. Baeza brings a clear-sighted mix of loyalty, lust, venality and backsliding of the man as well as his particularly nasty anti-Semitism.
Rosanna Bini’s Lancelot Gobbo is a highlight – swiftly paced with a strong rationale Bini applies to clowning – though the famous angel-devil speech has to be cut for timing reasons.
Best is the badinage Bini deploys with her father. This is Chris Gates’s distrait Old Gobbo, a character often deleted wholesale from productions. The comical Old Gobbo (who doesn’t recognize his son Lancelot, a role often cut) and the assured handsome suitor Arragon preludes to Gates’ main role of Duke, which he takes bewigged on a dais with the right tang of disinterred lordliness, a suave reserve till suddenly he proves as nasty as the rest: it’s ideal casting allowing the Duke to break out and show just how whoopingly vulgar he too is.
Bini sidles up to get knocked down, in his curious confusion. If it’s dementia Shakespeare doesn’t quite know how to suggest it, perhaps. Master Shallow Old Gobbo isn’t. He’s just plain confused and Gates injects doddering energy into distraction to make it knockabout.
Bini’s Salarino proves energetic and really on top of an idling merchant who has much to say. Bini gets the brilliant prattle of the man.
Gates takes on Arragon too though here doesn’t suggest the age some actors bring to guy the hapless second chooser of caskets. There’s a certain nobility in his dispatch, and lack of guying.
Lexi Pickett’s Jessica is immediately sympathetic: ardent, true-hearted, struck with a necessary betrayal of her mother. Regular Pickett is a quick study, runs with the verse in a fluent playful but emotionally true pitch. Here she shows dispatch, a refusal to become an adjunct to Portia, her husband or a sufferer of too much gob from Gobbo junior.
Newcomer Alex Louise’s Lorenzo is another clear-headed performance with warmth not cynicism or so much gold-digging despite the money-bags tossed about. Louise delivers a touch of humanity some takers of Lorenzo skate over with all the braggadocio. The man who wins Jessica is more apparent, and the way they run off together as Portia prepares for her trial is delicious. The gold’s a bonus. Even the whoops at the end when they’re told they’ll sometime inherit Shylock’s estate.
Andrew Hoggarth’s loyal Tubal – a role expanded in dumb show in some productions contrasts with the truculent early-armband-wearer Solanio contrasted with some merchants’ prattle, where Hoggarth enjoys a real swagger and snap. He’s been one of the real finds of the 2021 season.
Other small parts are neatly taken: Alissandra Henderson takes the Servingman, and gossipy Salerio in her stride.
Likewise the miniature parts of Messenger and Portia’s Act III servant Baltazaar, are neatly taken with a twist of poise by Izzie Early who’s also joined this year.
Even more recent newcomer Ava Dodsworth takes the slightly larger part of Leonardo and late messenger Stephano with an energetic burst of news and a promising way of stilling action in a beat.
A fleet traversal in just under three hours – ten minutes before they go on again – this production strengthens the company.
And that’s the point. OFS, great in embryo, might look to where they want to take themselves. New members are mostly discoveries; returnees from last year’s Lockdown and Unlocked festivals are now true Shakespeareans: several could work anywhere, grasping all in a beat.
There’s unevenness naturally. Some with scant Shakespearean experience lean hard into new skills to further the feel of blank verse. They’re complemented by other superb newcomers who pick up the OFS ethos. Let’s hope many wish to develop this wondrous ensemble.
This production needs a run. It’s potentially a great interpretation.
Katey Ann Fraser