There is a raging debate on the SHAKSPER discussion list (now running on the PlayShakespeare.com server) as to the value and meaning of Merchant of Venice. The text is notoriously ambiguous—is it anti-Semitic? an attack on Christian ruling classes? Are the characters good? bad? evil? The text clearly asks more questions than it answers (what is justice? who deserves mercy?), and any production must engage with its thorny morality. The Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Merchant of Venice, directed by Charlotte Conquest, handles this unsettling play with skill, presenting a strongly acted, subtle show. And, in a true coup of site-specific theatre, GSC manages to stage Shakespeare’s legal thriller on the grounds of the Guildford College of Law.
For a production of Merchant of Venice, the Guildford College of Law is a true gem. The site allows for multiple levels, with a moss-covered stone staircase and wall in the far rear and a grass front staging area. For the trial scene, the audience is instructed to change locations to the front of the College of Law’s overbearing ex-manor house. It is only a few dozen yards away from the main stage, but the change in venue highlights the imposing nature of the Venetian state. (In what is one of those fortuitous moments only available to live outdoor theatre, as Portia speaks, “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” a light rain begins to fall.) In the main staging section, designer Neil Irish creates several spaces in which the actors can play. On the grass, in the rear of the staging area, is a 1920s café setting complete with a white baby grand piano. Three white poles strung with lights separate the backstage from the foregrounded wooden stage space. To the left is a third space, a jumble of old trunks serving mostly as a reference point for Shylock/Jessica interactions. The 1920s design is stylish, helped by jazzy singles playing over the loudspeakers. Sarah Gobran as one of the café workers wears a smashing red flapper dress complete with what must be several pounds of dangling gold fringe. Jessica (Ellie Beaven) by contrast is in a conservative skirt and cardigan. The costumes also underscore the encroaching threat of the Nazi regime through the yellow armband on Shylock’s arm and a buffoonish Nazi hat worn during one of the raucous café scenes.
James Sobol Kelly is a fine Shylock. He enters wearing a large black overcoat and the yellow band around his arm. His opening interaction with Antonio (Damian Davis) bristles with friction and resentment. Davis is likewise perfectly cast as the brooding Antonio. He plays the role with a remarkable stillness, his anguish evident but controlled as he listens to Bassanio (James Loye) discuss the lady in Belmont, “richly left.” The final Shylock-Antonio “showdown” is a tense affair; Conquest’s direction allows the scene to play out organically, reaching a cold, murderous pitch as Shylock walks brusquely toward Antonio, knife in hand.
The other cast members also deliver strong performances. Gobran plays her opening scene as Nerissa with a pitch-perfect irony—yes, it must be terribly difficult having all that money, Portia. Rachel Donovan’s Portia is refined but not wholly likeable, like so many of the characters in the play. In one instance she gestures toward Jessica, briefly forgetting her name until it is supplied by Lorenzo (Rhys King). The subtle marginalization captures the fear and disdain hiding under Portia’s glamorous exterior—as a moment of characterization, it’s brilliant. Beaven’s Jessica seeks after a social liberation, but remains torn between her new and old lives. We can never quite be merry as Jessica stands there, still an outsider in the strange world of 1920s excess.
Amidst the play’s somber main events, there are two hilarious turns from Pinches as the Prince of Morocco and Andy Cryer as the Prince of Arragon. Both of their entrances make full—and comic—use of the stage. Pinches also plays (among other roles) Launcelot Gobbo, with sympathy and high energy. There is a beautiful moment in which Loye’s Bassanio corrects Gobbo’s malapropisms with the air of a displeased Latin tutor.
At its best, GSC’s production skillfully allows the characters to speak for themselves. Conquest’s direction is clear, and characterizations are full-bodied. The production makes no moral judgments, simply allowing Skylock to be both marginalized and spiteful, Antonio to be oppressive and vulnerable, Portia to be an agent of mercy and an agent of cruelty. The result is unsettling, thought-provoking and somehow deeply satisfying.