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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha. Some props are deployed.


Like Richard II, for whom the audience is nudged into sympathy as the drama arcs and falls, Shylock’s ambivalence makes us shift. Uncomfortably. It’s the focus of pre-and-post performance discussion, a rich outfall of the One Fell Swoop Project.

Unlike Richard II though, regard 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 Zoom 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.

It’s not always viable given some epic reads to discuss but this one, lasting over three hours with two discussions is possible through the 1597 work’s relative brevity.

This zoom production proves as ever engrossing as performance too, though air round a scratch reading really fixes what the ensemble feel they’ve explored.

Helmed by actor/director Conor Baum OFS is a mainline online addiction, not just for actors, but an increasingly large number of actors looking on as well as those signed up to watch this odyssey of scratch Shakespeare.

Baum himself takes on an urgent, merchant Antonio, willingly embracing death like a bride – on his friend Bassanio’s ambivalent love or impaled on Shylock’s knife-point, whichever’s sharper. Away with the lugubrious melancholy cloak Antonio can stand in. Baum – a consummate Shakespearean – considers something hurtling in Antonio: someone willing to sacrifice, even abase himself for Bassanio’s remembrance. All leads to that point and there’s a bone-clean clear-headed brightness to Baum’s delivery. Baum memorably takes Antonio by his scruff and shakes him. There’s some post-show discussion of sexuality and its non-specific, performative quality in Elizabethan Britain.

By spontaneous discussion and Baum’s casting all three actors playing Shylock are of Jewish heritage and all tackle it differently. Cohen, fresh from his saturnine King John sets up in the first two acts as a chiselled deliberator, someone willing to tack pain on each slight delivered to him. There’s a ghost of the Jonathan Pryce Globe performance here, but Cohen adds a steely entrapment of his own, a road-metalled tread of verse-speaking. His thinking up the bond isn’t a spontaneous act but one uncoiling like a spring.

Lexi Zoe Pickett’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. Pickett’s quick rationale is a swifter-arguing Shylock whose disasters impel action. Gone is the leisure to pursue revenge: calamities are stinging here and Pickett’s Shylock reels about,  settling on ferocity.

Finally David Oliver Simmons’ Act IV Shylock (he doesn’t appear in Act V) is alert with a quivering energy and skirling disregard for Venetian hatred. Another comment the cast make is the way Shylock’s completely environed by his enemies in court. Simmons really gets the devastation of those last words: ‘I am content.’

Another split character is Bassanio. Chris Gates (Act I-III) takes the opposite view to Baum’s velocity for Antonio and slows up the impetuous Bassanio suggesting a deliberation and strategy more headlong interpretations exonerate Bassanio of. Gates weighs his chances and losses as a more equivocal hero.

John Andrews’s Bassanio (Act IV-V) is a harder-edged, more fleet more importunate semi-hero, haggling and pleading at the end over the rings. Andrews withdraws a measure of sympathy for Bassanio’s judgement, perhaps allows an impetuosity to stand in its place, but it’s a fine-run thing.

The final split – Portia – is taken slinkily by Roseanna Bini (Acts I-III) 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. Bini gets the underlying warmth of Portia, the desire that impels her throughout Act III where ironic poise gives on to passion, then sheer action.

Bini’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.

Christine Kempell’s Portia (Act IV-V) is a glint-edged sharp-tongued dispenser of justice. Gone is veiled intent, and here the court of clear day sits on her brow. Kempell’s Portia is hard-driven with the logic of law lending her a relentless haranguing even badgering quality. Portia has these in reserve, the quibbling harsh palyfulness over the rings glints with a metallic amusement.

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. You always feel a few asides with Nerissa and Gratiano mightn’t have gone amiss. It’s too pat.

Nerissa’s beau Gratiano is a keen study by Emma Spicer, a clear-sighted mix of loyalty, lust, venality and backsliding of the man as well as his particularly nasty anti-Semitism.

Ross Gurney-Randall’s wonderfully-rasped Lancelet Gobbo is a highlight. Known for the guttural clarity of his delivery, there’s an often swifter pace and a strong rationale Gurney-Randall applies to this clowning – for once with a full text seen in all its grubby glory. His see-saw equivocations are a delight: it’s sharp, furious clowning.

Best is the barking badinage Gurney-Randall deploys with his father. This is Baeza’s distrait Old Gobbo, a character often deleted wholesale from productions. Baeza – who takes on two more parts owing to indisposition – 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 Baeza injects energy into distraction to make it knockabout. Baeza takes on Arragon 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.

Kirsty Joy Geddes’ Jessica is immediately sympathetic. Geddes is always a quick study and runs with the verse in a fluent take that here shows dispatch and a refusal to become merely an adjunct to Portia,  her husband or a sufferer of too much gob from Gobbo junior.

Sharon Drain’s Lorenzo is another clear-headed, more considered performance: Drain delvers a gravitas and humanity some takers of him skate over with all the bragadoccio. The man who wins Jessica is more apparent.

Ben Baeza’s Salarino proves energetic and really on top of an idling merchant who has much to say. Baeza gets the brilliant prattle of the man.

Joanna Rosenfeld invests the ill-choosing Morocco with dignity and some reflective warmth – Portia finds him the most palatable of suitors after Bassanio though can’t resist a racist jibe.

Other small parts are neatly taken: Karina Mills’ Solanio contrasts with some merchants’ prattle. Rose Marie Shaw takes the Servingman, the slightly larger Leonardo and gossipy Salerio in her stride; and the late messenger Stephano with a more energetic burst of news.

Ed Berridge’s loyal Tubal – a role expanded in dumb show in some productions – the miniature parts of Messenger and Portia’s Act III servant Balthazar, are preludes to Berridge’s main role of Duke, which he takes with the right tang of disinterred lordliness, a touch of stentorian in reserve: it’s ideal casting.

There’s clearly on-going work: some actors with scant Shakespearean experience lean hard into their new skills to go further with notable successes. Gone are the occasionally painful hesitations at the start of the project. Some actors are still picking through deliveries of single words or blank verse, but observers now see each actor grasp the identity of a character portrayed, in their vocal clarity. At the highest level of accomplishment we see reinterpretation with some remarkable solutions.

A fleet traversal, this production’s also memorable for insights the company bring during and after their performance of it: such discussions are treasurable. The outcome strengthens the company.