Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A less than satisfying updating....

The Merchant Of Venice

Wales Theatre Company , Swsansea Grand Theatre , October 9, 2004
At least one of the productions in Wales Theatre Company's Shakespearean trilogy was bound to feature either a battery of computer screens or television monitors flickering away – and sure enough, here they are. Rather a shame that Coral Bookmakers do not accept bets on theatrical set design.

This is an unashamedly contemporary treatment of a story which presents a modern audience with a dilemma. It is, of course, a classic work and one which resonates in the memory - it has been parodied in everything from Hancock's Half Hour to the 1973 horror movie Theatre of Blood(in which, incidentally, Vincent Price's hammy Shakespearean actor rewrites the ending in order to extract his pound of flesh - quite literally - from a critic who has given him an unfavourable review).

It is, however, a play whose central themes not only include love, greed and ultimate reconciliation but also xenophobia and, in particular, anti-semitism. So it comes as a surprise to see Shylock presented here not as a grotesque caricature but a real human being: Philip Madoc's noble voice, visage and physical presence are not quite what one has come to expect in portrayals of the Jewish moneylender, and towards the end one even finds oneself sympathising with his fate. To this extent, director Michael Bogdanov is to be praised for his intuitive and single-minded approach.

Sadly, however, there are other elements of the production which are somewhat less than satisfying. Crudely conceived racial stereotyping of a kind unseen seen since the heady days of Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language raises its ugly head in the depictions of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Morocco (John Labanowski) and the Prince of Arragon(Bradley Freegard) – the former is a cross between Tommy Cooper and Abdul the Bulbul the Emir, while the latter is played as a comedy bullfighter.

There is a sense in which 21st century sensibilities are very different to those of decades gone by, and depictions such as these make no concessions to changing times.

The modern setting, in which characters make their entrances texting unseen friends on their mobile phones, rapidly becomes both wearisome and irritating, and would seem to be little more than an excuse to squeeze in as many modern visual references as possible(at one point I could have sworn I spotted a poncho,
but it actually turned out to be a pashmina).

A scene in which a group of revellers enter pushing a motor scooter while singing the infamous Joe Dolcé number Shaddupyouface(I kid you not)is perhaps the lowest point of all and it was at this point that I had to restrain myself from
groaning out load.

The biggest problem in setting this story in a contemporary environment is that the "pound of flesh" contract becomes an anachronism, and a somewhat ludicrous one at that - as indeed does that favourite Shakespearean plot device in which female characters adopt male disguises.

And why, pray, does the musical soundtrack include that melancholy piece of Welsh harp music that graced last year's production of Under Milk Wood? Is it to become a regular feature of the WTC's prograamme?

The final moment - which I shall not reveal here - somehow manages to be totally surprising yet strangely predictable, and if this sounds like a contradiction in terms just wait until you see it for yourself. Rather a shame that what could so easily have been the finest entry in the WTC trilogy ultimately emerges as one of the worst, particularly since it features strong performances from the likes of Bill Bellamy, Heledd Baskerville, Kathryn Dimery, Ieuan Rhys, Lisa Zahra, Bill Wallis
and Richard Nichols.

It is worth noting at this point that the publicity flyers and posters produced by the company to sell the product to theatregoers are dreadfully ineffective, featuring an unknown figure(presumably meant to depict Shylock?)who bears an uncanny resemblance to the veteran US actress Estelle Winwood(albeit sans teeth and sans hair). Dubbed "Doctor Evil" by some and "Mini-Me" by others, this bizarre image was a curious choice for what should have been a high-profile publicity campaign. Quite why anyone thought this would put bums on seats in any great numbers is beyond my comprehension.

But then, to quote Iago in Othello, "I am nothing, if not critical

Reviewed by: Graham Williams

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