Camden Fringe 2010
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s more ‘difficult’ plays: not because it hasn’t quite the quality of his other work (and there are a few of those!), but because of the subject matter: his handling of the character of Shylock would be seen as quite anti-Semitic today, even though this portrayal of a Jewish character would have been totally acceptable in Shakespeare’s day. Milk Presents production, based on the play, seems to revel in this political incorrectness, and mix their rather brutal treatment of Shylock with a quirky and witty performance style. In the end, the finale is a little too much, and overshadows the rest of the piece, although a lot of the ability and thought on display is excellent.
The Merchant of Venice is traditionally seen as being all about Shylock, although he actually features little in the plot of the original play. However, in this retelling Shylock is the lynch-pin that holds it all together: we follow his journey as he makes his famous deal for a pound of flesh, should a debt go unpaid, and his daughter running away with his money, about which he seems equally upset. Normally, this is played down or attributed to other parts of Shylock’s character over his Jewishness, but in this case that seems to be all Milk Presents focus on. As such, we are witnesses to a brutal and harrowing deconstruction of Shylock’s character, quite astonishingly so considering the quirky and modern way the story begins.
Without the harsh ending, this production is actually quite sweet and modern: a collection of actors using stylised movement and inventive production techniques to retell this classic story. There are smatterings of excellent physical theatre, an overhead projector used to great effect, and bike-powered lights: all delightfully lo-fi and a credit to the thought processes this young company went through to create an interesting and different version of the Shakespeare play. However, as the piece runs its course, more and more energy is expending on brutalising the character of Shylock, including a striking scene where money is thrown at her (cast as female) from on high while water is poured into a glass bowl on the overhead projector.
What this eventually led to was a horrifyingly brutal and difficult ending: a tableau as the cast are given wine and bread, which they spit and shove into the mouth of the kneeling Shylock. This went on for far, far too long: it felt like a nasty, overly violent and unpleasant 5 minutes of constant spitting and shoving, and the resulting mess, smell and atmosphere was just vomit-inducing. This was intensely striking and made the point about the character rather directly, but was also not pleasant to watch: the poor girl playing Shylock ended up looking like an extra from Cannibal Holocaust. It’s difficult to critique this moment, as it made its point very effectively, but the resulting display on stage was just awful and not enjoyable to watch at all.
The final star rating here is less a reflection of this final impact the piece had, and more of the thought processes behind it: the company’s decision to brutalise this character, within the context of The Merchant of Venice, taking on the veiled hatred of all the characters within the play and giving it action, was novel, but not necessarily worth watching. Also, the ending overshadowed some of the excellent work that had been on display before: what a poor note to end such a quirky night’s entertainment on!
It’s a shame, because up until this point the show was worthy of the highest of accolades: the end just made the whole effort a bit less measured, and smacked a little of a juvenile desire to shock. A bit of control, a sense of the rest of the piece, and a less overtly grotesque ending would have made this a show I can wholeheartedly recommend: as such, all I can do is recommend the company, and hope their next effort is a little more cohesive.