Theater Review: The Merchant of Venice, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

I’ve been going to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon now for about two years (and I’ve been living a few miles away for a year and a half). The RSC does a mix of Shakespeare plays and plays by other Elizabethan and Jacobean authors, together with some new or more contemporary works (such as two plays based on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a play about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, and a recent production of Death of a Salesman). Not all the productions are great; some, particularly of the works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, have been disappointing, in part because they plays themselves are not very good. But all of the Shakespeare plays have been very good, or excellent, and critics have generally reviewed them in a very positive light.

A few days ago, following the press night performance for The Merchant of Venice, and in preparation for attending the play last night, I realized that the RSC had not tweeted anything about reviews for the play, which is something they do every time a new play is presented. I searched Google, and found out why. The Guardian said it was “poorly conceived and drably spoken,” giving the play two stars out of a possible five. The Telegraph gave it three stars, comparing it negatively to the current production at the Globe Theatre in London. And WhatsOnStage also gave it two stars, saying “it’s very hard to see what lies behind Polly Findlay’s disappointing revival.”

With this in mind, my partner and I went to the theater determined to like the play, if it was, indeed, likable. Critics don’t always agree with audiences, and we’d found that many productions that are well reviewed just don’t work for us.The play begins before it starts. When the doors opened, and the audience filed into their seats, Antonio, played by Jamie Ballard, was standing still in the center of the stage. (My photo below – taken from my seat – is a bit fuzzy, because of the dark lighting you’re not allowed to take photos during the performance, but they don’t dissuade you from shooting the empty stage; this time it wasn’t empty.)

Antonio on stage

Antonio was standing there ruminating, preparing for his first lines:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Jamie Ballard was clearly not just standing there; he was hard at work getting into character. Shortly before the play began, he started crying, and when he uttered his first lines, the sadness was clear.

The photo above, and the one just below, gives an idea of the stage. The floor and a large wall behind the stage were all made of what looked like brass; some kind of gold-colored, highly reflective metal. The perspective as the play began was one where the audience could see itself (if you were in front of the stage), giving an odd impression of perhaps being part of the show. This set was essentially naked for the entire production, with the exception of the round ball you can see at the back-left of the stage – a pendulum, which Portia pushed after her first scene – and a small chair and table brought on during the trial scene. (It will be interesting to see how the filmed production, broadcast to cinemas in July, will work with this reflective stage.)

Merchant of Venice 2015 5 361x541

(Patsy Ferran as Portia and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio. Photos by Hugo Glendinning for the RSC.)

As such, the production had a bit of an experimental feel to it. Many of the actors sat on benches to the left and right of the stage when they were not involved in the action. The lighting was minimal, though for the first few minutes, the house lights stayed on, making me wonder if I’d be seeing the reflection of the theater throughout the performance; fortunately, no, since that would have been very distracting.

The Merchant of Venice is best known for Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Played by the Israeli actor Makram J. Khoury, Shylock looked like a Brooklyn taxi driver, and, while he acquitted himself excellently in the well-known speech “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” and in the trial scene, where his performance was impeccable, his accent made it difficult to understand him during parts of the play.

Merchant of Venice 2015 13 361x541

The Merchant of Venice is, of course, Antonio, who borrows money so his friend Bassanio can woo Portia in Belmont. In interesting twist, Antonio and Bassanio are seen as more than just friends, with a full-mouth kiss early in the play, and another one later, during the trial scene (which clearly annoyed an elderly man sitting to the right of us, who made some sort of snide comment each time it happened). The energy between Antonio and Bassanio was interesting, and well balanced, though I felt that Jamie Ballard, as Antonio, was clearly the better actor of the two.

The Merchant of Venice is two plays in one. The first part is mostly a romantic comedy, about marriage, where Portia’s suitors have to choose from three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and a third of lead, and he who chooses the one containing her portrait will have her hand. The three caskets come down from above the stage on wires, to hover over the front of the stage, and the scenes with the three suitors are clever and well performed. There is plenty of laughter as the different suitors take their turns.

There is a funny bit when Launcelot, Shylock’s servant, has a monologue. He is sitting in the second row, talking in part to an elderly woman sitting next to him, who seems to not be impressed. Tim Samuels, as Launcelot, is delightful in this role, though the director cut the role of his father, Old Gobbo. Launcelot is the comic relief, and wears a clown face. He livens up the production, and even has a line added when Bassanio is choosing the casket. After Bassanio ponders which to choose, and after Portia is giving him subtle hints that it’s the lead one, he says “The gold one,” bringing down the house.

Merchant of Venice 2015 6 361x541

(Scarlett Brookes as Jessica and Tim Samuels as Launcelot Gobbo.)

The second play within the play is the trial scene, where Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Portia, disguised as “a young doctor of Rome; his name is Balthasar,” pleads Antonio’s case, in order to help her husband Bassanio. Portia, played by Patsy Ferran, is excellent in both her guises. She is a strong, yet truculent Portia, and a convincing, serious Balthazar.

Merchant of Venice 2015 12 541x361

(Patsy Ferran as Balthasar, with the rest of the cast during the trial scene.)

As I said earlier, this production comes off as experimental, and that might have irked some of the critics who didn’t like it. It’s true that there are a number of questionable elements in the production. One could question the use of the reflective metal stage and back wall, and the lack of sets, other than the small wooden chair and table during the trial scene. But I found that the cast worked well with this stage, and the subtle changes in lighting allowed it to seem to be different colors and materials. Also, from my seat (second row, center), there were some interested reflections of the actors against the floor of the stage, and against the back wall.

There is an excellent scene at the end of the play with Lorenzo and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. Lorenzo begins:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

This scene, and the finale of the play, where Portia and her servant Nerissa reveal that they were disguised during the trial scene, takes place with candles on the stage. Starting with just a couple of candles, it continues as Launcelot brings out more candles, two at a time, until there are a couple of dozen candles scattered across the stage. It’s a very attractive staging, but it seems to come from nowhere; there’s no real reason for all these candles. That scene contributes to a certain lack of coherence in the staging overall, but it doesn’t detract from the energy and excellent performances of the cast.

Merchant of Venice 2015 10 361x541

I don’t know why the pendulum was swung early in the performance. My guess is that it represented the ticking of time, but I found it distracting, almost making me a bit dizzy for a while.

There was an interesting use of music in the play. Using Venetian madrigals, and music composed in that style, a choir and cast members sang at times, though why the cast was singing wasn’t clear. They sang both from their benches, and when they were all on stage changing their clothes before the trial scene.

Merchant of Venice 2015 11 541x361

This is certainly the most innovative production I’ve seen at the RSC in my two years attending this company’s performances of Shakespeare plays. The play moves quickly; at 2:10 (plus intermission), it’s not a long play, and, aside from a bit of a drag around the half-hour point, I was riveted on the stage throughout.

Perhaps the critics expected something more traditional; instead of a modern-dress production, they wanted it to look like the Al Pacino film. Or, perhaps theater critics attending this type of play don’t expect the staging to be challenging. While I do feel that some of the choices in the set and staging are questionable, they didn’t detract from the production; if anything, the stark stage helped make this a play more about the actors than the set, and the actors succeeded in making it work.

Update: We say The Merchant of Venice again last night. The play was ten minutes shorter, and everything about it felt more polished, more broken in. It’s almost as though when we first saw it, the actors hadn’t gotten everything as honed as it should have been in the first production, which may, in part, explain the poor reviews from the press night performance. It’s a powerful production, and, with the tightening and slightly faster pace, works nearly perfectly. (I still got annoyed by the swinging pendulum…)