A Merchant of Venice at the Playground Theatre
Director Bill Alexander might be obsessed with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but that love does not seem to be shared by the six-strong ensemble in his 105-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s problem comedy.
The adaptation retains the primary plot between Antonio (John McAndrew) and Shylock (Peter Tate), and the romantic sub-plot between Bassanio (Alexander Knox) and Portia (Lena Robin), but dispenses with the other two romantic sub-plots. The only other characters retained from the original are Bassanio’s vehemently anti-Semitic friend Gratiano (Alex Wilson) and Solania (Mary Chater), a blend of the two Venetian gentlemen Salarino and Solanio.
The decision to reduce the play to these six characters comes with the fortunate bonus of considerably reducing the stage time because there is little dramatically captivating in this adaptation.
For a production that has been modified to focus on the love between those key characters, there is a stark lack of chemistry in the relationships depicted. McAndrew’s Antonio is so rigid and po-faced for most of the production it is impossible to believe that he and Bassanio are the dear friends they claim to be. Just as spiritless is the romance between the principal lovers Bassanio and Portia. Knox and Robin may attempt to draw the audience in through breaking the fourth wall to engage them in the relationship, but this superficial staging device is as artificial as most of their delivery.
The few engaging moments come from Tate’s Shylock and Wilson’s Gratiano. Wilson evidently revels in portraying the venomous side of Gratiano (supported here by some of the most caustically anti-Semitic lines in the play from other characters, too) that it is impossible not to be intrigued by such a charismatic, though troublingly villainous performance. Otherwise, for the rest of the play, the acting seems to fall foul of the age-old Shakespearean problem: prioritising the poetic quality of the dialogue above its dramatic quality
The costumes and polished floor of the stage may represent a suave La Serenissima, but the production is neither as slick nor as sophisticated as it should be.
Photos: Guy Bell
A Merchant of Venice is at the Playground Theatre from 10th November until 4th December 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.