The atmosphere of The Merchant of Venice is a strange thing. One moment the audience is swept up in the hustle and bustle of light-hearted, musical scenes, the next they are forced to witness what are often very uncomfortable scenes of vilification and racial hatred. The Globe’s production seeks to heighten these contracts in order that the famously ‘difficult’ scenes of confrontation between Christian and Jew are faced head-on by the audience. There is no escaping it. Although there are many light-hearted moments in this play, it is also one that tackles very difficult, and indeed very current societal issues.
The opening scenes of this production are a fantastic, atmospheric feast. A lone recorder player takes stage (William Lyons —also Musical Director of this production), and slowly the stage fills with cast members arriving from every conceivable corner of the Globe (if of course there were corners...). Winding their way through the groundlings, and even clambering down from the audience balconies, the players emerge one by one, chatting, calling out, creating a bustling and vibrant atmosphere. The musicians not only begin the play, but are, in fact, an integral part of the performance, providing appropriate, varied, and sensational background and linking passages.
This is a very musical play. Not only is the central casket scene framed around a song which illustrates the moral message behind this strand of the plot, but the closing scene between Jessica (Pippa Nixon) and Lorenzo (Nicholas Shaw) is a paraphrase of Plato’s concept of the music of the spheres. It is wonderful to see the heightened prominence that Shakespeare has given to music in this play—more so than any he had written previously—and wonderful, therefore, that the musicians in this production are more prominent, walking frequently onto the stage. They are not characters as such, but certainly a significant visual presence.
The casket scene is beautifully staged and the comedy of Portia’s (Kirsty Besterman) ill-fitting suitors is warmly done, providing a well-judged build-up to Bassanio (Philip Cumbus), whose successful choice prompts an eruption of applause from the audience. An interesting dynamic is established between the characters. For much of the play I found myself feeling strong dislike towards several key characters. The men seem frivolous and unkind, while Portia and Nerissa (Jennifer Kidd) seem spoilt and obnoxious. Yet Shylock (John McEnery), although angry and misanthropic, appears in a new light when contrasted with the Christian majority. McEnery’s performance is a dazzling gem within this production. He manages somehow to show us that Shylock the Jew is not really the ugly duckling that he is condemned to be. Similarly, the Christian swans that surrounded him are shown to be not quite as virtuous as they first appear.
Although an overriding sense of light-heartedness dominates this play, buoyed in many scenes by Lancelot’s (Craig Gazey) charming performance, this is a production that demands concentration and commitment from its audience, not least in the length of the production (three hours including intermission). However, if anti-semitism on the stage is something with which you are unwilling to grapple, a sizzle of sights and sounds still offer ample entertainment for all.