The Merchant of Venice

Sat 7th July – Sat 1st September 2012

reviews

Cheng-Chai Chiang

at 04:59 on 12th Jul 2012

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The premise of 'The Merchant of Venice' is well-known: the Venetian merchant Antonio enters into a bond with Shylock the Jewish money-lender in order to finance his friend Bassanio's trip to woo fair Portia, whose father had decreed before his death that only the suitor who chooses rightly among the three caskets bequeathed by him shall win her hand in marriage. Asked to account for his insistence in exacting justice in the form of a pound of Antonio's flesh when the latter is unable to repay his debt on time, Shylock's response savours of a sick joke, that is nonetheless sedimented with the embittered pain of the persecuted: 'but, say, it is my humour: is it answer'd?' Staging on of Shakespeare's 'problem plays' invariably means having to grapple with the unaccountable and problematic question of comic justice in the play: to what extent does the horizon of romantic comedy elide or exclude the probing questions that the play poses about the alienating force undergirding identity constructs? Creation Theatre's production does a remarkable job in balancing the ethical imperative of representing an unflinching inquiry into the dehumanising effects of racial prejudice while also offering a highly entertaining and delightful theatrical experience.

The open air setting of the Said Rooftop Amphitheatre works wonders for a play that explores the unstable boundaries that structure and splinter human relations. Oliver Townsend's set seems sparse at first sight, comprising only a number of crates on a revolving wooden stage, but reveals its intricate design and versatility through visually provocative juxtapositions of actors that map out in subtle yet visceral ways the spatial politics that organise Venetian society. One of the many pleasures afforded by the production is witnessing how the rudimentary performance space is constantly transformed by the actors' subtle manipulations to evoke in successive turns the ambience of Venice's canals, the tension of a courtroom, the intimate enclosure of Portia's garden, and so on. Throughout the performance, the actors never leave the stage, and their costume changes and preparations for incipient entrances remain vaguely discernible through the gaps of the set; yet scene transitions are never awkward under Natalie Abrahami's ingenious directorial decisions. Actors not directly involved in a scene look on from behind the set, creating a rather fitting ambient tableau of surveillance in a play where characters routinely report their observations of other characters; in another scene, she gains considerable comic mileage by incorporating an actor's cosmetic finishing touches into the latter's grand entrance itself. More importantly, her astute utilisation of the performance space succeeds in sensitively accentuating the tonal complexities of a particular scene, for instance when she has a company of actors break out into a cheery tune in the background while Portia and Bassanio are rotated by the revolving stage, their mutual gaze signifying the precarious threat of thwarted happiness should he not choose the right casket.

The versatile and immensely talented cast sing, dance, provide musical accompaniment and inhabit multiple roles throughout the production, giving the exhilarating impression of a troupe of players capable of endlessly reinventing themselves to meet the exigencies of any dramatic situation. It is difficult and perhaps unfair to single out performances in an impeccable ensemble of actors that supported each other generously and rendered each scene so richly textured, though special mention should go to Leila Crerar, a luminous Portia who was equally adept at portraying the vulnerability attending the heroine's paternally-circumscribed agency and the chillingly remorseless meting out of justice in the later part of the play. Jonathan Oliver preserves a poignant dignity in his portrayal of Shylock even in the latter's most abject moments; his performance movingly traverses emotional extremities without falling into caricature. Scott Brooksbank and Gabriel Fleary, who play Antonio and Gratiano respectively, also gave memorable and hilarious performances as Portia's initial suitors, providing the production with some of its most inspired comic moments.

Perhaps Creation Theatre's distinctive achievement lies in its ability to not only gratify but also expand its audience's imagination through its theatrical ingenuity, which eloquently invites us to consider afresh the play's exploration of the boundaries that delimit and impoverish our common humanity. Even as we bask in the warm wit occasioned by lovers meeting, the porous stage-set ensures that one never loses sight of Shylock's pathos. Intelligent, beautifully-executed, and acutely sensitive to the stakes of representation, Creation Theatre's 'The Merchant of Venice' does ample justice to the richness of one of Shakespeare's most probing and precarious comedies.

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Ben Llewelyn

at 09:43 on 12th Jul 2012

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Having seen the Creation Theatre shows at the Said for the last three years, I had very high hopes for this year's production - last year they produced the only version of 'Antony and Cleopatra', my favourite of Shakespeare's works, that I've ever found satisfactory, which anyone who knows me will deem extremely high praise indeed. Fortunately, this year was no exception. Creation continue to present Shakespeare modernised, set to music, and exquisitely acted.

As I've come to expect from Creation, the play began with an exciting, dramatic song sequence, which set the tone (if you'll forgive the atrocious pun) for a use of music throughout the show which, according to my notes, I found 'gorgeous'. Whilst the language is perhaps not what I'd always choose, the sentiment is entirely valid - during the speech in which Portia is introduced to the audience, the use of a beautiful melody preceded her introduction perfectly, and the use of two or three recurrent themes in the music - which, incidentally, and most impressively, was live jazz throughout, added another layer of meaning and texture to an already most splendid production.

And so to the acting: near-faultless throughout. The cast all had an impressively self-assured stage manner, and played, without exception, to the entire audience in the difficult amphitheatre space at the gorgeous Said rooftop theatre. Gabriel Fleary is a particular highlight: his primary role is as the quasi-fool Gratiano, whom he plays with a cocky, self-assured stage presence well-befitting the role, but throughout the production he plays many minor roles, each one with style and panache - his rendition of the Moroccan prince in the casket scene was played to great audience delight, with many people I spoke to afterwards describing it as their highlight. Indeed the entire casket scene was really excellent, Scott Brooksbank playing his Spaniard, too, to great comic effect: the racial stereotyping in the play was handled hilariously and (occasionally) tastefully. With a large cast, it's always difficult to mention each player individually, but it would be an injustice not to mention a few others: James Wooldridge as Bassanio shows strong emotion extremely well; Louise Callaghan and Fiona Sheehan as Nerissa and Jessica respectively are equally wonderful, the former's excellent facial expression even when in the background and delicious playfulness in the revelation scene adding hugely to the production, whilst the latter had a beautiful innocence which lent an air to all her scenes which I can only really describe as utterly lovely. I must credit, too, Edward Franklin as Lancelot, whose really strong monologue technique was funny and very well-received. At risk of this turning into something of a list, one cannot review 'Merchant' without mentioning Shylock, though in this production he was perhaps slightly more easy to ignore - though Jonathan Oliver was certainly accomplished in the role, with his cold, clinical determination in the court scene powerful and impressive.

In this extremely talented cast, Leila Crerar as Portia is perhaps the least strong. Her emotions are often understated and the playfulness witnessed in her servant Nerissa is something which often eludes her. She is certainly a strong actress, but is perhaps yet to entirely find her stride here.

I can only recommend Creation's production of 'The Merchant of Venice'. If nothing else, the Said rooftop theatre is a beautiful setting for Shakespeare, and the wonderful and ingeniously operating set, carefully chosen and well-executed 1930's vintage, jazzy theme and matching costume, music and use of props here ensures the experience is absolutely unmissable.

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