April 11, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Merchant of Venice (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

The Merchant of Venice has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I love the fact that the play can so easily and excitingly be used to confront so many issues: anti-Semitism, homosexuality, gender oppression, racism, child abuse and more have all been dealt with in productions I’ve seen. It’s also one of the very few plays that can be effectively played both for laughs and for tragic effect. It’s a great play, with a rich range of possibilities for directors to choose from.

It’s disappointing, then, that the RSC’s new production of The Merchant of Venice is so, for lack of a better word, dull. There was no overarching vision for the play that I could discern, no new interpretation or spin, no real direction or focus for the production. Despite some cracking design ideas and the occasional spark, I left wondering why director Tim Carroll had taken on the production at all.

A uniformly red stage with a balcony provided a warm canvas for the action, and the design was often stunning. The most impressive part of the production came with the concept for Belmont. The three caskets rose from the floor, huge ice blocks on top of podiums decorated in gold, silver and lead. Suitors inserted icicles into their chosen casket, causing a spotlight to shine on the top of it, allowing them to read the hidden inscription. Meanwhile, Portia was revealed in a discovery space veiled, dressed in white and surrounded by hanging icicles. This all led to the exciting moment when Bassanio went to claim Portia with a loving kiss. As he touched her lips, the door to the discovery space slid shut, cutting her off from view, and with a loud crash the three blocks of ice all disintegrated. The removal of the ice which had often surrounded Portia up until this point was a visually interesting signifier of the change in Portia’s state.

Other design elements were also visually interesting, if more superfluous. Dozens of broken shards of ice were lowered from the ceiling for the night scene in Belmont, casting dappled light around the auditorium and creating a fantastic sense of space and the outdoors for Lorenzo and Jessica’s romantic conversation. The balcony wall also had the ability to move up and down to create new layers of space in the upper acting area. This was used horribly during the scene between Gratiano and the disguised ‘lawyer’ and ‘clerk’, moving up so you could only see the actors from their hips down. This was presumably to emphasise the visible rings, but felt gimmicky and tacked-on. More effectively, during the Belmont scenes the wall was raised slightly to reveal a row of wine glasses, half-filled with water, stretching the width of the stage. Disembodied hands dipped their fingers in the water and ‘played’ the glasses, creating a beautiful and eerie sound that perfectly suited the fairytale feel of those scenes. More gratuitously, the first act ended with red dye being added to the glasses in reference to Antonio’s plight- a pretty image, but unnecessary.

It was the performances that let the production down. Throughout, there seemed to be very little in the acting to hold interest, and particularly in the first act the long speeches were horribly monotonous. Part of this was to do with the neutralisation of all the comic characters who usually stand out in the play. Gratiano and Launcelot were both suited and relatively sober, playing their parts as relatively serious members of Bassanio’s entourage, and even Morocco and Arragon were both played straight. The performers playing these parts were among the stronger cast members (particularly Sean Kearns as Arragon, in an all-too-brief but excellent performance), but by removing much of the humour usually associated with these characters the first act became very dull, unfunny and slow (compare to the Globe’s hysterical production, which also lacked depth but made up for it in comic energy).

Bizarrely, rather than take the comic opportunities afforded by these characters, Carroll instead chose to introduce odd bits of audience interaction such as having Nerissa point at audience members when talking about Portia’s suitors (I was Fortenbrasse, the young English suitor, randomly!) and asking audience members to hold letters. These were funny, to be sure, but the seriousness of the in-play action only served to highlight how incongruous these sections were.

Angus Wright’s Shylock epitomised the strengths and weaknesses of the production. Well-spoken and thoughtful, this Shylock spoke in a matter-of-fact, almost quizzical tone throughout with very few changes in tone. It was an interesting and unusually dignified interpretation, but dramatically quite uninteresting. Even his final ruin at Antonio’s hands was met with little more than a shrug, leaving me unsure as to what Shylock’s role in this production actually was. Yet Wright brought out some great moments in his performance in contrast to this stoicism – his cackles of glee when he heard of Antonio’s misfortune, and his defiant tearing off of his shirt as judgment was pronounced, mirroring his appearance with that of the half-dressed Antonio.

This characterised the production as a whole – moments of brilliance, such as the ice design, but let down by a lack of purpose and monotonous tone. The performers worked hard, but on the whole it didn’t feel to me as if there was anything at stake. The trial scene particularly lacked a sense of danger, with only Gratiano’s lunge at Shylock providing a moment of tension – the rest of the time, the complaints of the onlookers felt more like mild protests than a life-or-death situation. At the other end of the scale, there wasn’t a huge amount of passion in the love stories – Lorenzo and Jessica, for example, barely even looked at each other as she descended to join the masque, let alone embrace.

The strongest in the cast was Georgina Rich as Portia, who brought a confidence to the role which, by the final scene, had established her as the central character. Combining an early sadness with a desperate hope for Bassanio’s success, and fully embracing her own power once the ice had shattered, hers was the only performance that really felt like it had an arc, where the events of the play had a genuine effect on her.

I must admit, I saw the play in preview and so there’s plenty of time for it to improve. The seeds for a good production are there – in the final scene, the performances suddenly sprung to life in a genuinely funny and moving scene, and I enjoyed the final dance/dumb show, which whirled past at a pace that came as a complete shock after 3 quite slow hours. I hope it improves, and I look forward to seeing what the critics said after last night’s press performance. Ultimately, it wasn’t an awful Merchant, it just felt pointless.

Posted in Theatre review