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NODA Review - The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ received a sparkling modern interpretation at the Hippodrome and what a delight it was. Clean, simple, modern staging created the perfect arena for telling this classic tale in fine style. Performances were, without exception, of the finest quality and the whole evening was a theatrical gem which sparkled long into the night.

The play began by introducing the audience to the whole company via the agency of a stream of crossovers,  creating a busy bustling atmosphere which was the first of many of director Elizabeth Holland’s thoughtful touches. We soon encounter Antonio, Salarino and Salanio (Mark Tunstall, Emma Stafford and Gavin Roberts) nattily attired in their chic business gear, engaged in discussing the pressures of the business life. The plot is soon set in motion as Stephen Hooper’s confident Bassanio appears to reveal his financial problems which prevent him from wooing rich Portia, leading to Shylock’s baleful intervention. The play addresses a multiplicity of themes and the treatment of the Jewish moneylender is certainly controversial - ever more so given the passage of time - but this production dealt with the material with intelligence and sensitivity. The counterpoint to the darker side of ideas of justice, morality and the letter of the law in the Venetian half of the play is provided by the romance and humour of the scenes in Belmont; Portia’s many suitors taking the challenge to win her hand in marriage, and the game playing and disguises which characterise the closing stages of the play. The balance between the two sides of the play was perfectly judged in this production and the whole package was very neatly arranged.


Two towering performances dominated this production: Justine Sutcliffe’s Portia and Richard Holley’s Shylock. By the time we reach the final scenes of the play, the twin threads of the play’s two ‘worlds’ are drawn together by the two characters most effectively. Justine gave a first class performance as the level headed and amiable Portia, her scenes with Nerissa - Sam Garforth in another wonderfully down to earth and humorous performance - were a particular delight. The romance between Justine’s Portia and Steven Hooper’s Bassanio was believable and honest and both performers looked comfortable and ‘real’ on stage together. Richard Holley’s Shylock was superbly well drawn, offering a truly memorable characterisation. Eschewing the need to dip into the Fagin-esque dressing up box of wigs, beards, false noses and over the top vocal pyrotechnics, Richard gave us a Shylock very much grounded in reality with a very strong performance indeed. His every appearance on stage was electric: commanding, controlled and persuasive. In Portia and Shylock, we were treated to two memorable characters hewn from stone: Portia, polished marble smooth; Shylock, granite hard with his flint sharp edges left exposed.


Supporting characters were no less successful in suggesting a production which was clearly a labour of love and very much a team effort. Brendan Barclay gave a committed performance as Lorenzo (superbly strong and clear diction throughout) and his romance with Hannah Sutcliffe’s Jessica was also a delight, both performers adding a contemporary shine to the material. The always dependable James Claxton added a sprinkling of Puckish glee to Gratiano, he and Sam Garforth between them providing a wonderful pairing to complete the trio of lovers in the play. Paul Robinson was a wonderfully cheeky Launcelot Gobbo, with Ant Peter adding gravitas to the role of Old Gobbo. Janet Spooner’s haughty and aloof Duke of Venice was a very well realised minor character, as were the two visitors to Belmont invited to solve the riddle to win Portia’s hand in marriage. Rachel Peter was a hoot as the Prince of Morocco (perhaps a little bit of ‘Ali G’ creeping in for very good measure?!) and Lucy Anderson was equally amusing as the Prince of Aragon: both performances played with contemporary notions of masculinity, bringing just a touch of the ‘reality TV’ mentality to the production which was a very clever addition. 

The ' First class' cast of 'finest quality across the board'.

The stage was neatly arranged with three well chosen Venetian images setting the scene nicely, the central ‘cube’ spinning around to suggest scene changes (Belmont, street scenes, Shylock’s house etc). The use of a number of black pillars provided all the extra scenery needed and were used effectively throughout. Sympathetic lighting enhanced each scene and there wasn’t a moment at which the audience couldn’t pick out every word of the dialogue. Act Four was particularly impressively staged; the culminating legal battle for Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’ looked impressive as the whole cast assembled at the trial. I wasn’t sure about having the masked chorus of onlookers chanting certain words in unison as they appeared in the script: perhaps a little gimmicky for my taste but each to their own as they say. 


This was a particularly impressive production which really worked. Performances across the board were of the finest quality, the whole look and feel of the enterprise was of the highest standard. When a first class cast are marshalled by a director who knows her stuff, the outcome is likely to be of an impressive standard: that extra special injection of Hippodrome magic helped this production to scale the heights of theatrical grandeur. When an evening at the theatre inspires you to seek out and explore other related works, it’s a testament to the success of the enterprise. It took me no time at all to dig out my favourite recording of Vaughan-Williams’ beautiful musical setting of Lorenzo’s ‘Serenade to Music’ and the following evening, I indulged myself with a very guilty pleasure: popping ‘Theatre of Blood’ into the DVD player. This superb film from 1973 - a camp horror classic - includes, as just one of its many highlights, the sight (and sound!) of Vincent Price demonstrating in full blown technicolour awfulness just how NOT to play Shylock! My heartfelt congratulations to all at the Hippodrome for a wonderful evening in the company of Shakespeare - and of a very special production.