Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Merchant of Venice

Gwent Theatre , Llanover Hall Arts Centre , October 17, 2002
An evening out at a good production of a Shakespeare play is a rare treat these days and something I relish (almost as much as acting in one) So an essay from a strong and proven director like Gary Meredith was something to be looked forward to. Sitting there in the first few minutes of the production I felt my heart beginning to sink a bit. This wasn’t Shakespeare, as I understood it. Once again a production with much of the poetry almost ignored and with four lively actors more out of a modern day soap opera than the Elizabethan era. What’s happening I thought, has Gary Meredith lost his touch or I am I just growing old?

Then I thought to myself, hang on a sec. Let’s look at the challenges here. First the Director was limited by the paltry funds available and also constrained by the rulings of classroom timetables. So how do you do The Merchant of Venice in an hour with four actors and make it interesting for secondary school students, some of whom probably think the whole thing is going to be a bit of a bore anyway!

Well just like this! Once the actors had tuned their School Hall boom to match the intimate confines of Llanover Hall’s little theatre they drew their characters boldly with strong strokes, with charcoal sticks, giving us the main elements of the story and eliminating Shakespeare’s more delicate flourishes on the way. After all the A and AS students had the whole of the script to read for themselves!

With a crafty use of masks and frocks each actor played a number of roles, retaining their own faces for their most important part. Tom Englishby, for the most part a camp Portia got the whole thing off to a good start with a wicked gleam in his eye which told the audience we’re not messing about, this is going to be fun! A great deal of it was, particularly when his Portia and Chris Durnall’s Nerrissa played girlies together. I could hear the schools halls laughing out loud and some of the students thinking, perhaps Shakespeare isn’t that bad after all Oh yes Gary Meredith knows his audience and what to give ‘em.

Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech showed that Tom Englishby, along with his fellow actors could be very sensitive and retrained when the need arose.

Sensitivity and naivety were a key to Phil Michell’s performance as Antonio who had it not been for the concern of Geraint Pickard’s strong Basanio might have got himself into an even greater pickle. In a full production Basanio is quite a minor character but here the actor’s warm and confident personality befitted his important role. It is not often that a critic will visit Venice within a few days of seeing this play. I saw many many merchants there, none as na´ve as Michell’s Antonio. They all had no difficulty hanging on to their ducats. I saw no Jews but Chris Durnall’s Shylock dripping with unpleasantness was quite enough for one week. I could quite believe this character would be ready to rip a pound of flesh from anyone he didn’t like. Even though everyone in the audience must have known the play, the ’no drop of blood ‘speech still elicited a small gasp of relief from the audience. Proving that after a bit of a shaky start, Shakespeare and Gary Meredith had got us in the end.

Clearly this was never meant to be seen as a full rendering of the play but a picture of how Gwent Theatre is able to fulfil its role as one of the major TIE and Community Theatre companies operating in Wales at the present time and well able to handle what ever the Arts Council’s new strategies might throw at them.

Don’t miss their production of Brian Friel's ‘Faith Healer’ now touring and at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff Wednesday 27th and Thursday 28th November. Staring Gary Meredith, Elizabeth Pearce and John Lovat.

Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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