Review: The Merchant of Venice - Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Patsy Ferran as Portia. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC)

Patsy Ferran as Portia. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC) - Credit: Archant

Relevant, compelling and ultimately tragic – Polly Findlay’s second production for the RSC explores racism and loyalty with unrelenting focus

Makram J. Khoury as Shylock. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC)

Makram J. Khoury as Shylock. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC) - Credit: Archant

This summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions pivot around themes of race, revenge and religious hypocrisy. For the third renaissance play of the season, award-winning director Polly Findlay gives a modern makeover to The Merchant of Venice – a text that has long been controversial owing to its exploration of anti-Semitism. That the thematic concerns of the play resonate with a contemporary audience is clearly felt – The Globe are also running a production of The Merchant of Venice this season, with Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. Yet, whether the RSC can compete with the rave reviews of Jonathan Munby’s more traditional production remains to be seen.

This is indeed one of Shakespeare’s comedies, though often referred to as a ‘problem play’, and Findlay’s direction brings out the darker, tragic edge to create a production that is a plea for diversity and equality. Ultimately, the harmonious romantic ending that a comedy is expected to deliver is overridden by a feeling that is wholly unsettling. Thankfully, Tim Samuels’ mischievous, slapstick Gobbo, who makes his entrance heckling from a seat in the stalls, and Ken Nwosu’s hyperactive Gratiano are on hand to deliver some of the play’s sparse light-heated moments.

Patsy Ferran as Portia and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC)

Patsy Ferran as Portia and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC) - Credit: Archant

The costume, designed by Anette Guther, is vibrant and modern – highlights include diamante encrusted balaclavas and an enviable selection of trainers. Aside from these sartorial distractions, the minimalist set serves to both focus attention on the realism of the tragic portrayal of Shylock and make Shakespeare’s language the star of the show. Johannes Schutz’s design – complete with huge swinging pendulum that wouldn’t look out of place on a construction site – is slick with minimal props. The lights remain on in the theatre for the opening scene – with the audience reflected in a gold mirrored backdrop that dominates the stage – to create an atmosphere of alienation that develops with increasing discomfort as the play unfolds. In this un-localised setting, the choral music, composed by Marc Tritschler, presents the only link to the play’s Venetian location – performed by the acting company and five children that peer down from above, to deliver a score laced with sorrow.

Makram J Khoury is arresting in the role of a softly spoken Shylock. Rather than taking on the role of domestic tyrant, his calmly calculated performance evokes sympathy upon confrontation with the lovesick merchant, Antonio, played by Jamie Ballard. Shylock’s composure as Antonio spits in his face is a genuinely shocking moment that will no doubt raise exclamations from the audience, as it did at the press night performance.

Rina Mahoney as the Duke of Venice and Jamie Ballard as Antonio. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC)

Rina Mahoney as the Duke of Venice and Jamie Ballard as Antonio. (Hugo Glendinning/RSC) - Credit: Archant

Patsy Ferran won the Critics’ Circle award for best newcomer last year and her kooky performance as Portia lifts the sombre mood of this production. Her face is wonderfully expressive, particularly throughout the pivotal courtroom scene, when her emphatic categorisation of Shylock as an ‘alien’ reminds how language is used to marginalise others. This, in the context of recent media portrayals regarding the fate, not of people, but ‘migrants’, is all the more poignant.

From their opening kiss, the most intense relationship on the stage is not between the newly married couples but between Antonio and Bassanio, played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. It quickly becomes clear that the words of the naïve, Portia, who ‘may neither choose who I would / nor refuse who I dislike’ speak for more than just herself.

While the play may not sate the appetites of Shakespeare purists, it certainly asks some rather demanding questions about racial tensions that can’t be ignored. The result: an entertaining and fresh reimagining, albeit one with a strong directorial voice. There are performances throughout the summer until 2 September 2015.

The production will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK on 22 July 2015

Words by: Daisy McCorgray