Image credit: Shakesoc Warwick

Courageous but confused: Shakesoc’s Merchant of Venice

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Rating: 

Anyone who knows me knows that I have the unique talent of somehow managing to crowbar my Jewish faith into every conversation, so I naturally leapt at the opportunity to review Shakesoc’s reimagining of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Joe Matty.

This remains one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays; his Venice is a city corrupted by pernicious anti-Semitism and brazen sexism, with the female body commodified by male suitors. Matty’s gangster-themed production is courageous in tackling arguably the play’s most controversial topic: Judaism and its reception.

This remains one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays; his Venice is a city corrupted by pernicious anti-Semitism and brazen sexism

In a shockingly dark yet powerful opening scene, justification is creatively given to Shylock’s antagonistic role in the plot when the usurper is subjected to a brutal, racist attack. To the sound of a pounding rock anthem, Elizabeth Champion’s Shylock is assaulted by a mob and receives a vicious wound, a mark that Champion displays throughout the play, constantly reminding us of the reason behind her calls for a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Beaten, tossed about, and taunted with pork sausages, Shylock is forced to become hateful and the scene is necessarily forceful in conveying the abhorrence of anti-Semitism.

Whilst a gender-blind casting of Shylock is risky and inevitably engenders some scepticism (particularly as Champion is adorned with religious attire traditionally worn exclusively by men), Champion’s superb performance stands out. Rage and grief are perpetually etched on her face as she suffers from racial abuse, filial betrayal, and the loss of her wealth and assets. These are pains that she ensures are vicariously experienced by the audience, slowly losing everything, including her faith, bowing to the cross in a desperately tragic final scene.

Despite strong performances and brave confrontation of anti-Semitism, the production is riddled with inconsistencies

Alex Westbrook is equally capable in his role as Antonio, performing the eponymous merchant with wonderfully delicate understatement. With hunched shoulders, muffled tones and hands constantly stuffed in pockets, his Antonio is defeated by life and remains incredibly watchable, uttering his lines with softly-spoken ease. His monotone delivery reveals a quiet menace, uncaring as he condemns Shylock and his “sacred nation.”

Despite these strong performances and brave confrontation of anti-Semitism, the production is riddled with inconsistencies, plagued by a backdrop that merely confuses rather than excites. Matty’s choice to stage the play within a vague ‘gangster’ setting feels half-hearted, and the cast of heavies that continually patrol the stage in their fedoras and sunglasses could easily be a group of blind jazz musicians as much as they are gangsters. It’s an admirably creative interpretation, but seems unfinished, straying into Bugsy Malone territory and undermining the deeply unsettling tone effectively established in the opening and final scenes. Indeed, the court scene feels more like a pantomime, with powerful dialogue often drowned out by the cast’s collective roars.

It’s an admirably creative interpretation, but seems unfinished, straying into Bugsy Malone territory

Tabi Wells’s Portia, while confident in her performance, reinforcing her words with convincing emotion, seems uneven in her development. She fluctuates too easily between misery and fear over her suppression from choosing a suitor, and a scheming confidence that is clearest when disguised in court. Her transition appears too rapid and therefore uneven.

This remains, however, an ultimately accomplished and watchable production. It is more daring than most student productions in its treatment of faith, features a talented cast, and is injected with some hilarious scenes (particularly Chloe Binfield’s portrayal of a bumbling Aragon, producing a bizarre laughing noise that will remain fixed in the memory). Yet it is equally an important reminder that cohesion shouldn’t be sacrificed in favour of producing a flashy reinterpretation.

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