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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Musicians: Musical Director Zac Gvi, Midori Jaeger, Saleem Raman, Dave Shulman.

Directed by Abigail Graham, Designed by Sarah Beaton, Composer Zac Gvi, Dramaturg Zoe Svendsen, Assistant Director Tash Hyman. Costume Supervisor Alexandra Kharibian, Movement Director Jennifer Jackson,  Globe Associate – Text Giles Block, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Globe Associate Glyn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Intimacy Director Yarit Dor, Production Dramatherapist Wabriya King, Voice Coach Rebecca Cuthbertson, Candle Consultant Sally Ferguson. Casting Becky Paris.

Till April 9th.


Sometimes it all seems too pat. Over the past few years, there’s been two kinds of swivelling away from the so-cosy end of  The Merchant of Venice. One shows the solitude of Antonio (RSC); and tellingly Patsy Ferran’s Portia in the memorable Vegas-inflected Almeida production hugging herself in tears to ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ The opposite happens; she realises Bassanio loves Antonio.

The Globe’s been consistent in another direction. In a memorable 2015 production Jessica’s terrible realisation comes as she watches her father (real father, this was Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce) immersed in a baptismal trough, like a collection of Venetian spit. She keens a lament.

So she does here; and Vegas is briefly back in the ‘Make Your Choice’ casket scene uproariously sent up as TV reality show with Sophie Melville’s platinum-card-sexy Portia swivelling like a prize in a gold lamé top on a plinth. Director Abigail Graham makes more telling use though of the capitalism/sex axis as ruling class exploitation of its moneyed minorities and gendered control. It’s the most lucid underscoring of these themes I’ve seen. Imbued with this, every actor’s vocally distinct too (not always a given, even in the Wanamaker).

To inscribe this, Sarah Beaton’s set is coined in single metallic remorselessness. The ornate Wanamaker screen’s covered. Everything gleams dull pewter in Sally Ferguson’s candle work – and there’s a fine coup at the end.

But the earlier production played it devastatingly straight: anti-Semitism literally, liberally spat out, underscored at the end, without erasing the steely entrapment Portia springs on her husband and his friend, ring or no.

So – shifting and cutting other scenes aside, which make sense – this two-hour-ten production makes a drastic short-cut to Shylock’s soul-destroying baptism. That’s accompanied by Zac Gvi’s subtle, never-overstated score shimmering both in the quartet of musicians and Eleanor Wyld’s heart-rending lament. That’s jump-cutting though.

Aaron Vodovoz’s Launcelot Gobbo take more prominence as we start with him, bantered to death by Raymond Anum’s heedless but edgy Gratiano and Ben Caplan’s first role as Solanio with ‘Jew’ fired back as a forfeit every time Gobbo utters it: Vodovoz flinches, suggesting in being both serving-class and serving the wrong man you sense danger.

Against this the purring self-confidence – mewing cutely to a penurious sidle-up – of Michael Marcus’ Bassanio sits well with Michael Gould’s Antonio as he bats Gratiano and Solanio away. Whatever the latter’s melancholy, his young friend’s wheedling, they’re ‘gentlemen’ as Bassanio prefaces his impecunious confession to Portia later. Marcus plays an entitled, lusty Bassanio: neither wholly redeemed nor arch-calculator. Someone who gets through ducats, a lucky-breaker.  Of hearts mostly. This Bassanio though isn’t twisted on a ring and we miss that.

Gould’s twisted nature only reveals itself confronting Adrian Schiller’s Shylock: when Gould’s Antonio closes on the deal and Shylock offers his hand, he hesitates for an age; then spits on his own before clasping. Later using a wheelchair after being broken in prison, Antonio reveals more tricks. Gould shows us a class hatred set in stone, a man borrowing against his own racist nature.

Melville’s Portia too exudes racism: whether in her treatment of Daniel Bowerbank’s Lorenzo or his new wife ‘what’s-her-name Jessica’ twice, as if an act of recognition contaminates her. Melville’s Portia acts the commodity she is, sexualising herself as a package for sale; an act of revenge against her father and the lists of men presented to her. Here we get new lines to clarify disdain. The old ones serve too: ‘hue’ for Bowerbank’s Morocco, despite finding him more attractive than everyone save Bassanio. Bowerbank’s portrayal of avidity in both roles has an openness about it.

Portia can more easily disdain the foreign hustler (rather than wholly decrepit) Aragon – more vital and unpleasant in Caplan’s hands. And whether echoing her or playing MC to the Portion of Portia show, Tripti Tripuraneni’s Nerissa manages to etch someone who knows her licence to amuse ends with her mistress’ marriage, and takes her chances.

But Portia’s transformation as Balthazar returns Melville to quite traditional territory. In this clean sprint of a production there’s still detail in the trial scene (Caplan’s Duke is a gem of gravel and gravitas), though there’s none of the theatrics of Balthazar suddenly inspired.

And we don’t quite see this Portia. Her angles don’t get the chance to add up: not Melville’s fault. This is still a formidably-shaped Portia, kerned by coinage, seeing commodity in her own desire and a right to buy sex from the man who chooses her, as their clinch shows.

Schiller commands as he has to. Rarely raising his voice, even on the word ‘revenge’, he’s given a 21st century expletive at the end of the trial to underscore his breaking. Everywhere Schiller patiently builds piety, carrying with him precisely the tools of the day needed. It’s this Shylock still prepared to offer the hand of peace, enumerate his wrongs when pressed, and finally to address in his ‘Hath not a Jew’ speech not the prematurely departed tormentors, as usual, but direct to the audience, making us complicit. His unlooked-for merry sport, like Balthazar’s, is no sudden inspiration: the bond’s smoothly delivered, oiled with wrongs.

It’s in the personal that Schiller locates Shylock’s arc of devastation; it pressures his vengeance. First, his testy relations with Wyld’s Jessica, herself abruptly treated and abridged: there’s less later rounding or teasing of her character, but in place of that something special. Here Jessica’s a transaction of love, lust and ducats for Lorenzo. Her motive lies too in semi-incarceration – much rattling talk of keys – suggesting Shylock’s treatment of her in lightning flashes. Shylock’s scene with Tubal though (Caplan again) shows him breaking completely. Schiller suggests hollow revenge is a last despairing act of a man bereft in a wilderness of Christians.

This production ends memorably in Wyld’s lament, a Kol Nidrei piercingly sung. But cutting a couple of scenes leaves other characters like wrecked argosies. Shakespeare offers more complexity; we can take nuance in this of all centuries. We don’t need cartoon sketches, especially when what Graham accomplishes at the end could easily cap it all, as it does here, in a tragic blackout.

This is though a reading of Schiller’s Shylock as probing as those other great productions; and of Melville’s nearly-rounded, brittle Portia. And Graham’s drawn the whole with struck-off lucidity, helped by vocal clarity. Notwithstanding caveats – especially for those who don’t know the play – I am content.