The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and most ambiguous, plays. The First Folio proclaimed it a comedy, with gender-swapping and other traits familiar to Shakespeare’s comedies. However, the relationship of the tormented Shylock to the surrounding characters, and the religious tensions that arise as a result, make it somewhat less clear-cut in contemporary performance. The Buskins production, in a stunning setting on Worcester College lake, was no exception to this with superbly balanced interaction between the comic and tragic throughout.
The outdoor stage yielded both significant bonuses and challenges: the backdrop of a setting sun as Portia and Bassanio declare their love for each other and the entire stage illuminated by candles after dark was nothing short of magical in effect. Director Lucie Dawkins had fully exploited the surroundings with a boat used to transport players to the pontoon, emphasising the reliance of 17th century Venice upon its waterways, the merchant’s life literally riding upon the tide. However, lines were often lost and the lute player was inaudible which is particularly unfortunate in this play, given the emphasis upon music, called for both when Bassanio chooses from the caskets and later when Jessica and Lorenzo discuss their love. Although both the lute and the concluding ensemble that accompanied the jig were chosen for contextual value, the former could have used some amplification in this setting.
There were some superb supporting comic turns from Richard Hill (who many will remember from the recent Playhouse production of A Little Night Music) and Nick de Mulder, as the Princes of Arragon and Morocco respectively. Their caricaturing of the pomposity and arrogance displayed by these suitors was delightful, with the audience clearly enjoying their performances. At the other end of the comic spectrum, however, Cockney Launcelot seemed a little forced, particularly when playing tricks upon his father. Salerio and Salanio provided ample (if slightly uncomfortable) comic relief in mocking Shylock’s distress, and Frederick Bowerman as Gratiano was consistently entertaining with his bawdy innuendos.
A character who is often portrayed comically, however, took a far more serious turn in this production. Barney Fishwick’s Shylock was commanding, intimidating, and at times downright sinister. The character of Shylock has undergone multiple transformations since the 17th century, with the initial title page announcing ‘the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew’. Initially portrayed in a commedia dell’arte caricature style as a figure to be mocked, Charles Macklin’s 1741 depiction reportedly caused several audience members to faint in terror, while in more recent years Laurence Olivier portrayed Shylock as an entirely broken man, using his religion as a comforter and insulator by wrapping his prayer shawl around himself when he hears of Jessica’s betrayals. There was no comedy or laughter in Fishwick’s interpretation, with the emphasis in the famous ‘O my daughter, o my ducats’ speech clearly upon the monetary rather than the familial. This highlighted many of the play’s major themes, particularly the predominance of money in Venice (Portia is ‘nothing undervalued’), the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism (particularly in the Christian morals espoused by the casket choice), and where the role of love lies in an interaction with these forces of power.
Negotiating these tensions also exposes an interesting dualism in Antonio’s character, played by Lloyd Houston. While he is viciously disposed towards Shylock, he emerges as subservient to Bassanio, almost taken for a fool in risking his life on a money-lending scheme for Bassanio’s profit. This has led many (such as W. H. Auden) to speculate upon Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio, in whether it is platonic, semi-paternal, or whether Antonio is suffering from unrequited love. However the power dynamic of their relationship (and, indeed, if Bassanio is possibly aware of and then exploits Antonio’s feelings towards him) was seemingly not foregrounded in this production, which left something of a gap in Antonio’s character as his motivations for the life or death deal seemed unclear. As such although his interactions with Shylock were suitably vitriolic, and the two seemed well-matched in their hatred for each other, he seemed to lose much of his character vitality in the ensemble scenes with other players. While this emphasised Antonio’s role as a pawn in a larger power balance, and indeed his outsider status as he and Shylock are the only ‘uncoupled’ characters at the close of the play, more could perhaps have been made of the reasons he allows himself to be treated as such.
The interaction between the couples was outstanding, with great comic interplay between Portia and Bassanio, and Gratiano and Nerissa, particularly in the concluding scene where the play with the rings is unveiled. Meanwhile the theme of religious tension was brought out in Jessica and Lorenzo’s relationship, their scenes in Act IV discussing the consequences of marriage between a Jew and a Christian. Although the setting made the intimacy of such a moment difficult as they had to strain to be heard, these scenes were sensitively acted and added nuance to their elopement. Act IV was the highlight of the production, with the whole ensemble gathered on the pontoon for the climactic court scene which was terrifyingly convincing, Hannah Gliksten (Portia) leaving the audience with baited breath as she negotiates Antonio’s fate. The Buskins production of The Merchant of Venice is guaranteed to provide perfect entertainment for a summer’s evening, in a beautiful setting that has been used to its full potential.
All productions for ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are now sold out; however, tickets will be available on the door for all productions. For more information please visit their website