Saturday, July 20

The Merchant of Venice – Traquair House

Regardless of the weather, you know summer’s arrived when outdoor Shakespeare comes around.  And of all the venues, Traquair House is surely the loveliest and most apposite in the Scottish borders.   Shakespeare at Traquair is a promenade production, moving from one picturesque location to another, with the mewling peacocks providing an atmospheric soundscape.  The night we were there, once the shower of rain had passed, we were relentlessly midged for the rest of the evening.  But such are the joys of outdoor theatre in Scotland, and it’s a testament to the competence of the large cast that I only saw one young person reacting to the pesky wee blighters.   In any case, they did little to detract from the enjoyment of this fine production of the Shakespeare classic.

Costumed in a variety of styles, mostly 1920s, an energetic gaggle of youngsters burst onto the grass beside the temporary beach bar type refreshment area, interacting with the audience and selling onions for three ducats.  I’ve no idea if that’s a fair price, but I only had a five ducat note and she had no change, so no onions for me.  For the most part these engaging and enthusiastic young people were our ushers for the evening, ensuring our safe passage from one scene location to the next.  On arrival at several of the sites we were greeted by a small band playing and singing “Yes sir, that’s my baby”.  Again and again.  By the end of the evening I couldn’t get the damned tune out of my head; maybe a couple of other tunes in the repertoire would have given a bit of variety to the otherwise very pleasant musical interludes.

Directed by David Bon, this community production of The Merchant of Venice has a light touch which blends drama, pathos and humour in almost equal measure.  Matt Davies as Antonio and Robert Rychel as Bassanio are utterly convincing as close and loyal friends, playing their parts with gravitas, although Bassanio has the opportunity for some frivolity with his interactions with Portia, and Rychel shows he is equally capable of wit.  Davies shows us a man with the cares of the world on his shoulders, unable to shed himself of sadness.   Daniel Askew as Lorenzo and Angus Shearer as Graziano provide good support and give reliable performances.  Mike Boyd gives Lancelot Gobbo a jaunty carelessness with abundant humour, munching on snacks and displaying an easy physicality.  Eating whilst saying lines isn’t easy, and saying Shakespeare’s lines to boot is quite a feat!

So to Belmont, and we meet Portia (Neve Scott on this particular evening, although this role has split casting) and her companion Nerissa, (Kath Mansfield, also in a shared role).  Scott has energy for sure, but maybe a bit less animation and a slowing of speech would have made her more believable as the wealthy and wise heiress.  One of the problems with open air productions is the lack of acoustics to aid the actors’ voices, and the female voice, especially the young female voice, is particularly vulnerable in this respect.  Every time Scott was facing away from the spot I was in, her voice completely disappeared.  Less speed and better enunciation would have helped, but I wonder how many rehearsals are held in the actual performance location, because Scott was not the only female voice which disappeared before reaching the ears of the audience.  Maybe better direction in terms of positioning would have improved the situation too.  When disguised as the Doctor of Law from Padua, Scott unwittingly rectified all these problems!  Mansfield is clearly an experienced actor and played Nerissa perfectly, with just the right touch.

David Bon decided not to include some of the more offensive abuse that Shylock, the Jew, suffers in Shakespeare’s original text.  Whilst understanding the perfectly honourable reasons for choosing to omit these lines, the danger is that, without witnessing Shylock’s suffering on the receiving end of such treatment from Antonio and his cohorts, Shylock may appear to be a heartless fiend, insisting on his pound of flesh.  Maybe the play is well enough known that we have that understanding from the start, without having to bear witness to it.  Scott Noble plays Shylock with such passion and pathos, it’s impossible not to feel his pain.   Noble is undoubtedly a very fine actor, who carries this pivotal role with poise and assurance.  When his beloved daughter Jessica (Evangeline Perry) rejects him in the final scene, his departure as a broken man made me want to run and give him a hug.  And although there had been good use of some audience participation in previous scenes, I didn’t!

There’s a lovely cosy, villagey feel to this production, but that in no way means it isn’t performed to a very high standard, with energy and professionalism.  The support crew deserve to be commended as well, providing good humoured service from ticket sales to ushers and bar servers.  Shakespeare at Traquair is well worth the trip from Edinburgh, even if you do go home with “Yes sir, that’s my baby” ear worm and scratching your midge bites!

Playing 29th May – 1st June and 5th – 8th June. 7.30pm

Reviewer: H.S. Baker

Reviewed: 30th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.