FringeReview UK 2019
I haven’t seen ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in years, and taking it in al fresco on a sunny evening seemed a very Brighton thing to do.
But this wasn’t run-of-the-mill; this was a very feminist production, with clever casting by Director Mark Brailsford.
Two powerful central women. Jules Craig as Shylock, Amy Sutton as Portia. Great physicality from both actors. When they were on stage together, in the courtroom scene, the atmosphere was electric.
Craig gives a towering performance as Shylock. Sutton is poised and sparkling as Portia.
Craig as Shylock gave us very believable indignation at the chronic abuse she’s suffered – a poignant rendering of “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? . . .” And a dogged insistence on getting what she considers her rightful due – in money, but also in respect. Even when he’s asking for her help, Antonio still treats her like dirt.
The play is seen as a ‘Problem Play’ in that several different themes interact. On one level it’s quite anti-semitic – Shylock is portrayed as a stereotype Jew. But Shakespeare also shows us the abuse and vile treatment that the Jews receive in Venice.
There were very good performances from the entire cast – Duncan Drury in particular has a very mobile face, which clearly portrayed his emotions of embarrasment or anguish. Drury is very watchable, and the layout of Brighton Open-Air Theatre meant that occasionally he was sitting right next to us in the audience. As were the others. A beautifully audible production, with very clear diction – not always pulling the exact meaning or nuance out of some lines, but making the story very easy to follow.
We first saw Shylock out walking with her daughter Jessica, admonishing the girl for talking to an audience member in the front row. The supporting couple of Nerissa and Gratiano – Kerren Garner (who was the Assistant Director) and Stewart Barham – carried on their over-the-top courtship right across the stage and up the tiers of BOAT’s oval seating. When Paul Moriarty’s Antonio was awaiting his fate at Shylock’s hand, he sat, head in hands, in the front row, and the sense of resignation was heartbreaking.
Making Shylock a woman tilts our perception of the piece, brings out the gender politics of the story. Shylock is a second-class occupant of Venice (she probably doesn’t have the status of ‘citizen’) and as a woman she’s second-class anyway. But in this production, they probably despise her for being a powerful woman even more.
Which makes Shylock fascinating, as a Jew but also as a woman. Here’s someone that the Venetians have to deal with commercially, but who they can’t respect as an equal human being.
In the courtroom, Shylock also reminds The Duke (actually The Doge, of course) that in spite of all the talk of kindness and pleas for mercy, the Venetian state is a slave-owning state. They buy and sell other human beings for their own benefit and profit. I imagine that there were probably slaves being carried as cargo in some of Antonio’s ships, to be sold for those duccats that the Venetians despise the Jews for amassing.
Portia is fiercely intelligent and a powerful personality – but she’s dependent on her late Father’s instructions as to who she can marry. To be fair – the tests are actually for her own good – but that’s not the point. Her father doesn’t trust her to determine her own future. And when she finally does marry, she immediately hands over all her wealth and authority to her husband. Only men have the power in Venice.
Even Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who could be thought of as an ungrateful spoilt child, has actually made her own decision, as a woman, to follow her heart and leave her family and her culture. Personally, though, I don’t approve of her taking all her mother’s wealth with her, so that she can continue to live a privileged life at the expense of her defeated parent.
But that’s another intertwined strand of the play. Money. Portia has inherited hers from her father. Bassanio’s an aristocrat, but penniless, so he has to borrow Antonio’s money in order to get hold of Portia’s wealth. True, it seems he loves her, but I’m sure her fortune must have helped – “So, Bassanio, what was it that first attracted you to the Lady Portia? . . .”
It’s years since I’ve read ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and I’d forgotten about the fun at the end. The Director has made full use of the humour in the play – the broad comedic antics of Launcelot Gobbo (one of several roles Mark Brailsford took himself) and the stuff with the rings that the men have been persuaded to give up. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ can be a serious portrayal of the bonds of friendship, duty – and also of anti-semitism – but the comic interludes lighten the message. Rather like in ‘Lysistrata’, where Aristophanes writes a powerful criticism of the Peleponnesian War, which would probably have got him exiled or worse, but dresses it up a a sex farce.
I’ve classed this production as a ‘Must See’ show. It’s only on for a short run, but the imaginative casting and powerful performances – especially from Jules Craig and Amy Sutton – make it something really special. Fie on you (as Shakespeare might have said) if you missed it.