January 31, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Merchant of Venice (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

After some rather poor Shakespeare at the end of 2008, I have to say that it’s a relief and a pleasure to begin 2009 in the company of Propeller and their thoroughly interesting Merchant of Venice. It’s been a couple of years since I was wowed by their Shrew in Stratford, and happily Edward Hall and his all-male company seemed to have lost little of their wit or invention.

Relocated to a prison called Venice, this production made the most of its setting, a three-tier barred Jailhouse Rock prison with courtyard space surrounded on three sides. The commercial exchanges of the play became backhanders to guards and other prisoners; the bargains in love became homoerotically charged negotiations over protection and allegiances; ‘religion’ was tattooed in crosses onto chests and necks and barely-contained violence threatened to erupt at every juncture.

The prison itself was fascinatingly out of time and place. Slave songs and a white-suited governor evoked the chain gangs of the deep American South; accents suggested Porridge; a drag queen gyrating behind bars recalled the silhouettes of Chicago. It was a prison in which Shylock could keep his daughter to clean his toilet and where bargains between prisoners were upheld by the ruling authorities. In short, it was a fascinating world, and the constant movement of background prisoners hinted that the action of the play was only a small part of the wider politics and games in a corrupt institution.

The biggest movers and shakers in this prison were Bob Barrett’s Antonio and Richard Clothier’s Shylock. The opening set them up in opposition from the off, as the Duke (Governor) brought the prisoners out of lock-up and demanded "Which is the Christian and which is the Jew?", causing the two men to stand forward and face off, before Antonio used his opening lines as an apology to the Governor: "I know not why I am sad". Antonio was a big man among the prisoners, followed by a line of retainers both intimidated by and loyal to him. Violent and moody, he held a switchblade to Shylock’s throat during their negotiations and led mocking laughter at the Jew’s ‘kindness’. His weakness, unsurprisingly, was Jack Tarlton’s Bassanio. Bassanio knew how to manipulate the older man, putting his arm around him and stroking his head as he asked for financial help. Antonio’s desire for Bassanio was knowingly doomed; Bassanio’s tastes were for Portia’s feminine drag than for Antonio’s burly masculinity, yet Bassanio was not above using Antonio’s love for him to get what he wanted.

Shylock was perhaps even more ambiguous than Antonio. A long-term prisoner with guards in his pocket and a live-in daughter, he was spat on by the ‘Christian’ gang and, ultimately, had his daughter and stash stolen from his cell after Lancelot, a guard in his pay, took Bassanio’s better offer and transferred his allegiance. Yet one could never have sympathy for this Shylock. Left alone with Sam Swainsbury’s leery Salerio (a conflation of Salerio and Solanio) after the thefts, Shylock’s sociopathic tendencies emerged. He punched Salerio to the floor, tied him to the bars of a cell and proceeded to gouge out his left eye, holding it in his hands with a panicked look as he began "Hath not a Jew eyes?" in a darkly humorous pun that was simultaneously painfully tragic. The ambiguity of Shylock was effective, painting him as neither sympathetic nor villainous, simply no better nor worse than anyone else in the prison. However, while effective, it also lessened the impact of this plotline; the outcome was of less interest than that of the Portia plot.

Portia, played extremely effectively by Kelsey Brookfield, was a fantasist, a queen entering by gyrating to the whooping screams of convicts. The whole ‘Belmont’ scenario, involving ‘suitors’ having to pay wads of cash to enter her game, was a cry for attention, a show put on for the convicts which the guards indulged. Yet Portia him/herself remained affecting, a girl looking for love and surprisingly reluctant to claim the eventual victor’s kiss. The charade in which she engaged was most pointedly realised after Bassanio’s victory, when Lancelot suddenly entered as guard and blew his whistle. Instantly the prisoners cleared the room of the caskets etc., and Bassanio, Portia, Nerissa and Gratiano picked up buckets and began floor-scrubbing duty, continuing their conversation as they worked. The world of this play was tiny, with all the characters sharing the same living space, leading to fascinating juxtapositions, such as an early enmity between Portia and Antonio, loathing each other over their shared interest in one man.

A further level of interest came from Portia’s hinted-at connection with the prisoner governor, who hung up his white jacket to signify the stake of a ‘father’, and who recognised her in disguise during Antonio’s trial. The hint appeared to be that the vast sums being paid in order to ‘woo’ Portia were the condition by which the governor would release his own claim on Portia which (if that was indeed the case) added a fascinating extra dimension to her imprisonment. As the trial ended, the governor paused before the ‘doctor’ for a long beat before leaving the stage laughing to himself, a slightly sinister acknowledgement of the all-seeing power he wielded over his inmates.

There were aspects of the play which worked less well in the prison setting. Morocco and Aragon, for example, had their scenes run together as if the company itself acknowledged that they needed to get these functional scenes out of the way, and the two performances (while not bad) relied on the usual racial stereotypes and thick accents for the comedy, rather than attempting to fit the roles to the setting. The caskets, too, were oddly accompanied by playing cards which Nerissa laid before them to no apparent effect – the ‘Queen’ signified Portia, but it required each of the suitors to open the casket, interpret the artefact within and pick up the playing card, which was all rather too confused and unnecessary – for the audience, as well as the actors, as it detracted from the more important symbols within the caskets themselves. Having a prison mug-shot of Portia in the lead casket, however, was priceless.

The performances were generally very strong, though Propeller are particularly good at recognising that the effect of the ensemble as a group is far more important than any individual performance. Richard Frame’s bewildered hard-man Gratiano was exceptionally good, and his relationship with the similarly-proportioned, yet dragged-up, Chris Myles as Nerissa was a comic highlight. Gratiano was greeted by a terrifyingly enraged Nerissa on his return to ‘Belmont’ in the final scene, the spurned partner punching Gratiano, grabbing and twisting his crotch and generally showing him that, while Gratiano may be the trouser-wearing half of this partnership, Nerissa wasn’t to be trifled with. Despite the violence, the male-male relationships were far more tender than the one heterosexual partnership, that of Lorenzo and Jessica. Jessica, the always excellent Jon Trenchard, took her conversion to Christianity badly; mocked by Lancelot as she attempted to sing with the prison choir, she quickly grew to resent Lorenzo and the culture she had been stolen into, and resisted Lorenzo’s attempts at romance.

The centrepiece trial scene was well-realised, partly due to the presence of Babou Ceesay’s Duke. While the Duke had often patrolled the upper reaches of the prison in earlier scenes, keeping notes on his charges, here he finally took centre-stage, and with him present the danger felt paradoxically greater. Where it had been hitherto every man for himself, and therefore everyone equally cautious, here the Christians had to restrain themselves and each other from intervening for fear of the Governor’s presence, leaving Shylock free to pursue his bond, upheld by the authorities as prison honour. In this production, Portia’s realisation of the loophole that would save Antonio came not a moment too soon, causing Shylock to drive his dagger into a board behind Antonio instead of into his heart. Thereafter, the scene became an official enacting of gang vengeance against Shylock, particularly bringing a smile to the face of the one-eyed Salerio.

The play closed on a reminder of the opening frame, with Antonio and Shylock facing off against each other in a possible reminder that prison life would continue, regardless of the play’s events, with all the characters continuing to live together and pursue their fantasies of power and freedom. A fascinating Merchant, rich in meaning and often powerful in execution.

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