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FringeReview UK 2018

The Merchant of Venice

Lewes Little Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Theatre

Venue: Lewes Little Theatre, Lancaster Street


Low Down

Shaun Hughes directs, designs lights and costumes this production, with David Williams giving much textual service, Geoff Parker providing much of the gleaming chrome design, and Roy Gooderham similarly with lighting. Charlotte Carrig provides makeup. Joanne Cull does much as stage manager.


There’s a quality of playing in this The Merchant of Venice that’s some of the most remarkable I’ve seen here. As a Shakespeare production one has to go back to 2014’s Richard III for such a rationale or such a central performance. Shakespeare’s a huge challenge verbally, and the power of this reading is in allowing a few superb Shakespeareans the amplitude of their delivery.


Leaden caskets don’t mean leaden pacing though. Shaun Hughes’ scrupulously intelligent production, set in 1950s Venice with survivor guilt and a braggadocio of newly rampant lire, could do with picking up pace where momentarily energy drops. Unusually though, he’s cast so well that it doesn’t drag as some under-energised productions can. David Williams deserves credit too for work on the text. The MJQ-ish jazz sometimes summoned in a flick is atmospheric and period-perfect.


Hughes himself and Geoff Parker design (and Parker leads construction of) the remarkable set. It’s split-level mezzanine with a throne centre upstage used once by the Duke, chrome railings and a piazza bare below with stage bang in front. Central steps lead down, particularly telling in the slow descent of Antonio from his cell for instance. There’s a suggestion of bare brick wall behind, nicely realized. Altogether this gleaming Fifties world looks not too distinct from our own, with a café table stage right nestling under the shadows of the stairs, where conspiratorial gossips throng and congregate. Parker with Roy Gooderham direct lighting too, and this is some of the best-used I’ve seen at LLT. Lighting softly though niftily accompanies action. Such a discreet and enlarging action is just what’s needed to paly on such a stripped-back surface. Joanne Cull does much as stage manager.


Hughes directs costumes too, and these essay clean classical designs of black and white: built up with overcoats and gabardine for Shylock, with his cap, and Tubal’s more humdrum Fifties hat and coat, suggesting a notably more rumpled fortune with his grey-green clothes. Bassanio shifts from black and white poverty to silvery grey get-up like a man at a wedding though he’s yet to choose his bride. Portia’s rose and alter turquoise periods dresses are striking, though India Whitehouse’s Portia/Doctor Balthazar gear is remarkably convincing (with Charlotte Carrig’s makeup crucial), and invests Whitehouse with some power. Most striking is the baby pink suit for the Prince of Morocco.


Leona Davide’s Solanio speaks tight and to the purpose as the ushering-in of action to Meriel Whale’s softer-voiced Salerio. Whale turns side too much, though it’s partly how she’s positioned. Consequently her slightly less distinct voice isn’t as clear as Davide’s. nevertheless they make a fine introductory pair. Alan Carter’s snarling anti-Semitic joker Gratiano could have been a collaborator of Nazis (Mussolini wasn’t anti-Semitic and upbraided Hitler for it, but then came all too terribly to heel). Carter’s agility and sure-voiced rationale is a delight. It means that Nerissa whom eh woos is the of similar pensionable age which makes the ‘boy’ references repeatedly used towards the end a bit of a farce. But we have the advantage of Elizabeth Burton giving Carter as good as she gets, with a frim voice and eye-sparkling lustiness. Carter’s active, as befits this gamester, and his mobility is one of the adornments here.


Daniel Hardwick’s Bassanio improves as he grows into his role. He possesses the rationale, and if he can’t match the finest speakers it’s because the bar’s very high. His Bassanio’s an aimiable chancer, with genuine warmth for Portia, and Antonio even more perhaps, but outclassed as he must be by Portia, or at leas Balthazar, her avatar.


His friend Simon Hellyer’s Antonio is in a different league. Gone are the flailing brilliancies of his earlier roles so appropriate to Petruccio for instance. Here Hellyer is mostly soft-voiced, drilled in melancholy and yet every word drops crystalline out of despair. Hellyer uses the carriage of his voice to promote subtlety, but also patience and every time he speaks the world stops to listen. He can conjure the old menace too, as when he hesitates to sake hands with Shylock when the latter proffers some friendly conclusions.


And it’s Robert Hamilton’s Shylock who’s front and centre here. He layers his performance and speeches with a scruple of care, weighing words, knowing each could betray him too. From his soft-voiced sibilance which avoids any obvious hissing, Hamilton lurches on with hurt. He can growl with bitter rapture over trouncing Antoni alter but the build to his motives is the most beautifully-articulated I’ve seen.


He knows Antonio for an enemy, and is spurned. Later two those two attendant Ss (David and Whale skirling in laughter) he’s provoked to his first great speech ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’ He builds to a shattering ‘revenge’ with both acceleration and grandeur but never oversteps it. His gestures too are those of a wounded giant. Its only when provoked does he suddenly think of the ‘bond’ made between Antonio and himself so Antonio can dole out three thousand ducats to the youth Bassanio he loves to go court Portia in a smart whistle.


More, when Jessica deserts him his pain shudders across like a wave. ‘I would not have parted with that ring for a wilderness of monkeys’ when ‘wilderness’ is emphasized and Shylock almost cries with pain to Tubal – Douglas Wragg’s clean-voiced performance is only allowed where it is, and he doesn’t come to signal ‘enough’ to Shylock at the trial scene as a few productions have had him do. But then Shylock is spat at. You’ll have to see who.


Each iteration of insult, injury and callous contempt from the Christian world is written across Hamilton and he echoes it severally, not in some imbroglio of vengeance. His fury is implacable in the court scene, but he stoops as it were to listen to Portia’s speech, and only the sudden contempt of Gratiano snaps him back to his revenge. Only a single stage direction is missing. Charged with bringing his scale, he doesn’t produce them: a stage-direction missed and not Hamilton’s fault.


Darren heather’s very full-texted Launcelot Gobbo has a scene all to himself and it’s too slowly paced. No matter. heather’s performance is a detailed delight, clear, making gesticular use of each witty point that might be obscured with time. Truculent yet not finally unsympathetic, he’s roguishly honest, cheekily reverent to those he loves.


Melissa Henderson’s just starting out. Her Jessica is youthful though with a plangent underswell of regret and loss right at the end, a fine touch. Vocally she’s not yet used to Shakespeare and hasn’t the clarity of older colleagues. Yet she brings warmth and the right presence to her part, and moves perfectly in it. There’s a hint of ebullience at the end when she spars with Lorenzo.


Her new husband Owen Daugherty is similarly young though he ahs the rationale and a clear voice – most of all he’s refreshingly able to suit actions to words and accent them naturally. He’s a delight and a natural Shakespearean. More can be expected from him in these roles.


Small roles such as David Rankin’s Duke of Venice are consummately-voiced, as are Tony bannister’s aged roué the French Prince of Aragon, aged narcissist (his sparring with Nerissa in handing cane and hat in a pompous manner is delicious in both) who takes his dismissal with dignity. and Tim Freeman’s superb – and pink – Prince of Morocco. A peacock performance is needed. And received. freeman speaks beautifully, modulating his unctuous clarity and peacock variations for a spectacular fall. In these BAME days, this should be a black or North-African part, though I know that mightn’t be easy to cast in the south-east.


India Whitehouse seems fresh to Shakespeare. she moves beautifully and speaks beautifully too, rather carefully as it’s clear that’s she’s not yet a Shakespearean. What Whitehouse does enjoy is a natural regality, a stillness to centre action – essential in Portia – and a ready warmth that can’t be feigned. Unusually, she’s most at home as the boy-roled Doctor Balthazar, suddenly gaining in stature and vocal aplomb. Her interaction with Shylock in the crucially affecting (though not obviously effective – yet) ‘quality of mercy’ speech sparks a genuine chemistry between the two.


Hughes makes some decisions as to how to round out the play. The Almeida production had a lonely Vegas Portia with ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ paying as she heartrendingly realizes Bassanio’s gay. The RSC also 2015 shows Antonio devastated. The Globe the same year showed Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock undergoing immersion like the whole of Venice’s spit drowning him. Her, Antonio does indeed round out, just as Jessica also hesitates. He repeats the words of his first speech. It’s a remarkable idea. No-ne sees content to leave Shakespeare we he left off. This is as ingenious and thoughtful a solution as any.


Exceptional in many things, it’s almost a classic production and definitely worth a detour for.