It is not often recognised that this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies and watching this RSC production from 2015 under the direction of Polly Findlay as part of the BBC Culture in Quarantine programme, one would be tempted to say it was a tragedy. I often say that less is more but Johannes Schütz’s set design is so bare that even with its pendulum constantly swinging, it is impossible to decipher a proper sense of time or place which is at the heart of this play about money and how it affects all involved.
We begin with Antonio (Jamie Ballard), a prince among Venetian merchants who is unaccountably depressed despite his obvious success as a dealer in luxury goods. His friend Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) in contrast is broke but remains reasonably cheerful as he has a plan to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran) and just needs the funding to see it through.
With all of his money tied up, Antonio turns to Shylock (Makram J Khoury), a professional moneylender who demands an unusual security for the loan: a pound of Antonio’s flesh, because the opportunity to be revenged on his rival means more to him than the money at stake.
And as for Portia? Her embarrassment of riches can’t buy her happiness and definitely stands in the way of love and finding a husband.
Revolving round the money, the play also deals with topics and social issues that belong as much to today as they did to Shakespeare’s time: fathers and daughters; racial discrimination; colour prejudice; love and friendship. And yet despite this, Shakespeare dissolves the complexity at each turn through laughter and a return to reality with the final bawdy jokes.
Whilst we are delivered a competent performance from an able cast, it feels too constrained, particularly in the moments when laughter could and should be tumbling out. The court scene is written so cleverly as it flits between and pulls together the many underlying strands of the play that is a shame to see it presented so flatly and with the cross dressing impersonation of Portia lost completely, in part due to the gender reversal of the Duke.
Shylock is a character with whom we should have sympathy for so many reasons, none more so than his profession as a moneylender is only because society doesn’t allow him to do anything else yet despises him for it whilst borrowing from him. Whilst he is presented as the villain of the piece – even down to being more interested in how much of his money his daughter has absconded with rather than her absence alone, as the victim of the piece he has the most powerful lines that cry out for all persecuted minorities.
But here, he is a mere bystander, played rather too stereotypically it must be said, with Antonio cast centre stage at every opportunity and the question of his relationship with Bassanio answered bluntly with their all too regular exchange of full-on kisses leading me to wonder at the end whether Portia had really got the prince she desired and deserved after all her efforts.
There were a couple of saving graces with Marc Tritschler’s choral music, beautifully played and sung, and Peter Mumford’s intricate lighting design, both of which provided echoes of Renaissance Venice whilst rather sadly illuminating the lack of lustre throughout the production as a whole which is a shame when one considers the quality of the cast on offer including a walk-on role for Brian Prothero as the Prince of Arragon.
The Merchant of Venice is available on iPlayer until the end of July.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 1st July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★