The press night of this production of The Merchant Of Venice was postponed after the abrupt departure of Michelle Duncan and the recasting of the role of Portia. Last night’s opening was no less problematic; after the interval, Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole appeared on stage to announce that Mark Rice-Oxley, playing Gratiano, had gastric flu and, after struggling through the first half, was not able to continue. But the show did go on, with a brave Craig Gazey – a crowd-pleasing Lancelot in the first half – grabbing a script to play Gratiano in the second. Caroline Bishop was there…
Perhaps Rice-Oxley’s drunken chunder into the crowd in the first half wasn’t acting after all. In Rebecca Gatward’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy-tragedy Gratiano and friends Bassanio and Lorenzo are lads about town, having a laugh and messing around, while the melancholy, world-weary Antonio looks on. Keen to woo wealthy heiress Portia in Belmont, the carefree Bassanio looks to his older friend for the money. Antonio, a merchant, is without funds until his ships come in, so takes a loan from Jewish moneylender Shylock, who ominously demands as bond a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Seeing this play performed in Shakespeare’s day would be fascinating: would the audience have laughed at Shylock’s famous speech where he rails against Christian prejudice? Would they have jeered his presence on stage, and cheered when he is knocked down in court? Gatward’s production leans towards this, as John McEnery’s Shylock is not the imposing, strong presence of some portrayals, he is a hunched, frail figure on stage, seemingly having to muster all his strength for his single-minded pursuit of his bond, which, inevitably, Antonio forfeits when his ships are lost at sea. When, in court, the tables are turned and Antonio metes out his form of ‘mercy’ in demanding that Shylock become a Christian, the Jew is an utterly broken and pitiful figure. To a modern Globe audience this seems a shocking act of revenge and we naturally want to sympathise with Shylock, but Gatward’s production presents the outcome as it would have been presented then: the good Christians manage to banish the evil Jew whose point of view has no validity.
More emphasis is placed on the relationships between the Christians. Dale Rapley portrays Antonio as a lonely homosexual who cannot openly have Bassanio as his lover, which perhaps explains his initial despondency and his willingness to submit to Shylock’s knife in court. Bassanio (Philip Cumbus) is a naïve young man who is put in his place by the intelligent and forthright Portia. Kirsty Besterman, who replaced Duncan as Portia, claims the role for her own and gets many laughs as she rolls her eyes at her prospective suitors and tries to contain her passion for Bassanio.
As for Gazey – as Lancelot he tickled the crowd with his funny voice, clownish antics and jester’s hat, and as Gratiano he put in a brave performance which, despite the distraction of the script, saved the day. No doubt a huge party greeted a relieved cast when the evening was over.