Arts Review: Merchant of Venice

Dir. Gordon Barr, Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, 16th July – 1st August 2015

It’s all a swindle…

Nestled in pre-war decadence, a sexed-up Salerio and Solanio bring us into this world where no-one seems to be able to hold onto what is theirs. From trading gambles and money-lending, stealing away to giving away, this is a world where anything can be bought, borrowed or stolen: but at some point, someone is going to have to pay.

While the Cabaret-style music which introduces and punctuates the piece is entertaining -at times superfluous but Stephen Redwood and Chloé-Ann Taylor are engaging to watch and nice to listen to, so you forgive them that – it’s more than a style grab. The design from Gillian Argo and Carys Hobbs’ costuming is more than your “Shakespeare-in-suits-because-why-not” fare, but a nod, aesthetically pleasing yet thematically ominous, to a 1930s build in hostility towards the Jewish population.

Staging such a politically and racially fraught play at any time is difficult, but the cast do with an aplomb both sensitive and sinister. Kirk Bage’s Shylock carries a dignified rage with him against the vice and hypocrisy of Venetian society, so that his downfall goes uncelebrated by all present except the gusty Gratiano.

All three actresses elevate their characters from pawns within a man’s world, with Nicole Cooper giving Portia a maturity and worldliness as well as wit and fighting spirit, while Stephanie McGregor’s Jessica struggles with the authority of her father, faith and new husband in a world which doesn’t quite have a place for her.

James Ronan is a sober Bassanio to Alan Steele’s rather licentious Antonio, yet his real star turn is perhaps the casket scenes where he plays the two failed suitors to Portia- the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. Hammy and with panto-appropriate costuming, he alternatively thunders or minces across the stage, giving the audience a few considered views of his posterior along the way to raucous laughter. Delightful though this performance is, it’s interesting to note the audience’s reaction to the ridiculously stereotyped princes within a play which is essentially about racism.

And by the end we see the dire consequences of the actions of the fair and mighty of Venice, far more than its outcasts, as their petty games of courting and teasing land them in a disturbing set of affairs.

[Caitlin MacColl- @turningtoaverse]

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