Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Raw and Revitalising Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

Propeller Theatre Company , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , February 9, 2009
The Merchant of Venice by Propeller Theatre Company Edward Hall's production opens with a visual shock. There are no Tintoretto arcades in this Venice. Michael Pavelka's set lines three sides of the stage with twenty foot high metal prison cells. In place of the customary costume, all Titian furs and velvets, the fourteen-strong, all-male cast have stepped off the set of “the Shawshank Redemption.”

The familiar prison motifs are all there; the rhythmic clanging of metal spoons on the cell doors, the canteen serving porridge, the cell with its bunk bed and slop bucket. John Dougall's tough Lancelot Gobbo has become a baton-holding jailer. Richard Clothier's grimly restrained Shylock keeps his wealth hidden in a filthy toilet cistern. When the ducats are handed over they are in the form of three wads of old notes. In their first encounter Bob Barrett's saturnine Antonio whips out a shank and presses it to Shylock's neck. Later on, in kind, Shylock smashes his money box into the face of Sam Swainsbury's Salerio.

The critics so far, with the exception of the estimable Lyn Gardner, have not taken too kindly to this, with a bleat of “not in the text.” Stratford has before set the Antonio-Bassanio encounters in a Turkish bath, and that too was not in the text. What Edward Hall has produced is a powerful metaphor. Italy was the birthplace of modern finance, depicted here as a tough world populated by and for men, driven by testosterone, never far from violence. (The production happily avoids any topical references but I could not help recalling a public statement made by the late CEO of Lehman Brothers. “When I find a short-seller, I want to tear his heart out and eat it before his eyes while he’s still alive.”)

Irrespective of the concept no-one could fault the verve, imagination and drive of the production. The Prince of Morocco, conventionally a dull potentate, is given a jaunty swing in Jonathan Livingstone 's performance- just seven months out of drama school we should hear his name again. In place of the often limpid Jessica Jon Trenchard gives us a restless and worried character.

It used to be taken for granted but it is worth saying that every word of the text was pitch perfect, the projection impeccable. On a tour that includes Rome, New York and Tokyo five days' residence in Abertystwyth is something of a coup for the town's Arts Centre.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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