From a historical point of view, there is perhaps no Shakespeare play which accurately depicts 16th century life better than The Merchant of Venice. The play about relatively normal people brings to life what it must have been like to exist at the time. With this in mind it’s quite fitting to watch a production of this play in the Rose Theatre in London, which is a small stage and museum built upon the foundations of the grand theatre which saw several of Shakespeare’s plays as they were first produced.
The Rose's Merchant of Venice, directed by David Weinberg, was to aid the fundraising of the theatre’s charity which aims to excavate and restore the original Rose Theatre. Full details of the project can be found on the Rose's website (www.rosetheatre.org.uk).
Anti-Semitism is a key part of this production, with every use of the word ‘Jew’ cutting and emphasised. Shylock, played by Saul Reichlin, has an aggressive and bullying style, and is defensive throughout. Reichlin speaks with a very pronounced accent and is noticeably older than the rest of the cast. Weinberg uses these elements well to portray Shylock as ‘the other’, contrasting him with everyone else who is much younger and speaks with posh English accents. The hatred between Christians and Jews is very much played out, and on the whole one sided against Shylock throughout. Even in the court scene, his actions and Reichman’s portrayal leave you well on the side of the Christians. This is an interesting artistic approach where the audience is left wondering whether to sympathise with Shylock, considering how unreasonable he has been. Antonio (Phillip Mansfield) is the martyr in the play, and Mansfield is skilled in his depiction. The first half sees Antonio as a horrible and spiteful person, but early on this shifts to a delicate and realistic portrayal of someone who is resigned to having a pound of flesh torn from his body and has already lost everything.
Comic relief arrives in the form of Portia’s failed suitors. Portia is played confidently by Rebecca Moore, and she comes across as a woman who knows who is in control. The suitors are amazingly well done. The Prince of Morocco (Dan Mullins) is played as a man with swagger, bad taste, and arrogance. The Prince of Aragon (James McNeill) is an uptight and better-than-thou aristocrat, with McNeill’s delivery excellent throughout. These characters are often the most fun as they allow such exaggeration. In a clever moment, when Aragon opens the silver chest and reads ‘You get what you deserve’, he finds a photo of Boris Johnson (the London Mayor).
In fairness to the rest of the cast, Reichman steals the show as Shylock, along with Moore’s confident and expressive Portia. The rest of the characters are essentially played the same, i.e. rich English men. They are performed competently, but in matching suits, long deliveries and matched movement, they may as well have been exactly the same person.
The Rose's Merchant is set in the modern era, with modern dress and costume designer Alessia Alba fitting the key cast in sharp business suits. Weinberg alludes to the world of high finance throughout, and modern London is compared to Venice as a rich trading city where money is key. As well as the dress, the business-like way the actors move across the stage is impressive, as they march about focused and quickly as you would see in the City. There is even an iPad at one point on stage.
The staging and props are minimal, and there is no music or sound effects, but none are needed. Philip Jones’s lighting is effective, though at some points becoming too bright, particularly around the courtroom scene. The way light shifts on to Shylock helps create the image of him as the outsider.
As for the production, it is fair to say the audience was very distracted by the cold throughout. The small and intimate stage area is not well protected from the elements and you could see the actors struggling, even under the heat of the lights. Much to the credit of the Rose volunteers, they provide much-appreciated blankets and hot drinks for the audience.
Merchant is a notoriously difficult play to stage. There are vital themes of mercy and justice, discrimination and prejudice and overall Weinberg balances them out well, making the audience come away thinking.