Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2023

The Merchant of Venice

Alex Pearson Productions, Ashley Gunstock for Poetic Justice Productions and Marzia Marani

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Drama, Theatre

Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton


Low Down

The quality of integrity is not strained here. It’s a natural, wholly believable world, charged with transaction and change: Shakespeare told in flashes of lightning maybe, but with the thunder of laughter and a ghost of wrongs rumbling long after the lights go down. A gem of distillation, dispatch and truth.

Directed and co-produced by Alex Pearson of Alex Pearson Productions,  Ashley Gunstock for Poetic Justice Productions and  co-produced by Marzia Marani. Set Design Sorcha Corcoran, Lighting Designer Steve Lowe, Costume Designer Alice Neale, Stage Manager Morgan Toole.

Thanks also to Penny Horner, Samantha Greg and all the team at JW3; London Metropolitan University, Terry and John Pearson, Pepe Pryyke, and Theatre Deli.

Till November 18th


A through-line of clarity, attention and lack of gimmicks shines like a shaft though this fleet six-pack Merchant of Venice, a production pacing through at one-hour-45 with interval, directed by Alex Pearson. It now arrives on tour at Brighton’s Lantern Theatre till the 18th. If you can, go.

There’s absolute sense too in this pared-down version, a clarity and rationale pointed everywhere by the cast, so words and situations gleam with purpose in their puffa-suits and smart Gucci looks (in Alice Neale’s costumes: wait for the prince suitors).

Though such things never overtake the action, there’s a buzz of contemporary port-life with seabirds as we’re at the coast of Venice with packing cases – doubling as caskets laid in the laps of the front-row. What seems like a blue/orange tent interior skims round the Lanterns’ black box, lit with hints of shading by Steve Lowe. Everything might lift with the wind. There’s a tang of sea-air in Sorcha Corcoran’s minimal set and sound. A fizzing mercantile economy, where argosies can make or break apart.

That’s brought through as mobiles flick on with the first characters, Tom Hilton’s Salanio with Michael Skellern’s Manila, minor players who in a moment twist as Hilton becomes dashing Bassanio and his arriving lower-class friend – Gratiano’s truculent Natalie Roles – morphs into the far higher-caste Antonia whom Bassanio plays on. Roles switches voices throughout: gobby anti-Semite Gratiano and dignified anti-Semite, sad lover Antonia.

There’s been love between Antonia and Bassanio, and re-gendering Antonio here plays out not as gay subtext but in the word “lover” said of Antonia, it’s clear Bassanio’s a toyboy whom (like the Marchelein in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier) Antonia’s gracefully letting go: so Bassanio can pursue a rich heiress, which might economically prove a relief.

Yet in Hilton’s ardent, open-handed performance Bassanio is sincere and though slightly oblivious to the dignified melancholy of Antonia, isn’t unfeeling or a simple dowry-getter. His passion for Portia is real enough, even in his somewhat insensitive description of her to Antonia, which layers young obliviousness.

Portia – and Shylock’s soon-to-be ex-servant Launcelot Gobbo – Abbi Douetil enjoys a rapidity suited to the quick ferreting-about and angel-devil monologue of Launcelot; as well as his shiftiness. Douetil’s equally suited to Portia’s swift subtle and occasionally downright scheming looks, particularly in conference with servant and confidante Nerissa.

This is a performance both pert and serious, girly – Portia is still very young and can pass for a boy – but also deeply serious on occasion. Douetil’s gamine Portia doesn’t lack either sexiness or subtlety, but there’s a palyfulness and joy too, perhaps best expressed when with Nerissa. But most of all Douetil rises to her great speech with a naturalness and point that swivels straight into a fleet-footed court scene.

Nerissa played by the remarkably expressive Giulia Rose enjoys speaking in every movement, and Rose’s dancing background shines through as her face semaphores emotions. Though occasionally one could wish the expressivity to be dialled back a little the clarity is fresh and undeniable, making Nerissa perhaps more than she should be, which is fun.

Her Jessica (as well as Salarino and the Duke) is equally bright and well-matched to jousting with her new husband Lorenzo (Michael Skellern) as well as a quietly appalled Tubal and Gratiano on occasion.

It works as Skellern’s joyous and not cynical in his possession of Jessica and all her stolen gilt: their joshing is amorous and real. Skellern’s Lorenzo is one of the most attractive, certainly open-hearted I’ve seen. One only misses in Rose Jessica’s sad intimations, her torn abandonment of an unsympathetic father, perhaps a dark inwardness on occasion.

Apart from a key Portia, consummate here in Douetil’s hands, there’s the confrontation with Shylock that’s only the apex of the latter’s traversal. Here Ashley Gunstock (also “blinking idiot” and self-delighting suitor Arragon) is consummate. He anchors the gravitas and suffering of Shylock.

From his early confrontations with Antonia, “spitting on our Jewish gabardine” and his great speech “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” is spoken so naturally it leads on to the great peripetia in that “revenge that comes through thrillingly but never over-emphasised. Gunstock manages to command both a restraint and lack of loud declamation even when most vehement, with a downright clarity, despite not speaking in a blowtorch fashion. His words come with their own penumbra, yet are pellucid, dignified, even tragic.

This leads to the final scene. Pearson’s production manages not to sheer off the happy end which a 2022 Globe Wanamaker production did, simply to emphasise the tragic end of Shylock. Here, like the 2015 Globe production, but rather differently, we’re treated to a terrible baptism. Jonathan Pryce was led to a trough where the collective spittle of Venice seemed about to drown him.

Pearson again scores here. A more limited bucket is taken by each of the rest of the cast as they flick their anti-Semitic baptism over Shylock. Yet wet-headed he rises donning his kippah, intoning defiant Hebrew.

The quality of integrity is not strained here. It’s a natural, wholly believable world, charged with transaction and change: Shakespeare told in flashes of lightning maybe, but with the thunder of laughter and a ghost of wrongs rumbling long after the lights go down. A gem of distillation, dispatch and truth.