We in the 21st century cannot watch Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as though we were part of an audience of previous eras. There’s too much blood in between. The trick for the director and the actors is to place the play in an acceptable context. This Abigail Anderson’s production succeeds in doing.
As with last year’s Twelfth Night, Anderson and her designer Dora Schweitzer use the intimacy of the Bury St Edmunds Georgian playhouse to meld the stage action directly with the spectators’ response. The house lights are dimmed but not extinguished; we watch each other only slightly less than we do the actors. Costumes are of the Regency period. The pillared set is simple and relieved only by iron gates with an asymmetrical pattern and neoclassical urns trundled on for the casket scenes.
So it’s all down to the acting. From the beginning Antonio (Oliver Senton) is presented as a man flawed by his own arrogance. He glories in his public virtues, but what lies under them is made manifest when he wipes his fingers after the handshake which seals his bargain with Shylock (Jonathan Keeble). It’s a beautifully nuanced performance around which circulate other men’s uncertainties.
Among these is Dominic Marsh’s Bassanio, a young man comfortable with his own unbridled expenditure, the free-speaking Gratiano (Liam Tobin) and Lorenzo (Antony Eden) who has not quite thought through the implications of his desire for Shylock’s daughter. Solanio and Salario (the “salads” of theatrical parlance) conflate in Steve Giles’s Solanio. All inhabit an assured, comfortable world; why should it ever change? What could ever change it?
In Belmont there is Portia and her attendant Nerissa. Joannah Tincey does very well by Portia with the right combination of romantic yearning and wealth-begat authority. If “You see me, lord Bassanio, where I stand” doesn’t completely make its proper impact, “The quality of mercy” strikes to the heart, as it should. Devon Black’s Nerissa is an admirable foil with just the right touch of impudence as she sees in – and sees off – assorted suitors.
Keeble’s Shycock is an interesting portrait of the outsider who wants acceptance, but on his own terms. I don’t think I have ever seen the logic of his insistence on the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law made so obviously a virtue as well as a flaw. It throws into focus Antonio’s savage reprisal at the end of the trial scene, demanding a forced conversion, something which cuts deeper than the loss of property.
There’s some interesting doubling for the smaller roles. Tobin, who plays the loud-mouthed Gratiano, is also the bombastic Prince of Morocco. Tubal, who cannot help but add fuel to the flame, is played by Senton, the Antonio. TJ Holmes manages to make Launcelot Gobbo rather less tedious than usual in the second act and has a winning way with the audience during the interval. He also turns in a smart caricature of the somewhat dim Prince of Arragon, aptly finding the portrait of a blinking idiot in his choice of casket.
Jessica is a small part but one which carries much weight on and off the stage. Amy Humphreys shows a young woman precariously balanced between two opposing cultures. Leaving the one in which she has security but no freedom, can she cope with what might eventually happen in the other when Shylock’s gold runs out? It’s another way in which characters in the play begin to matter to us as real people. The production, incidentally, is sponsored by local company Abbeygate Wealth Management. Very bold of them.