The Globe’s new production of The Merchant of Venice suffered several setbacks this summer, including recastings of both Portia and Gratiano (see News, 12 June 2007), but despite the adversity it still suitably impressed the critics on opening night (29 June 2007). Having already delayed the opening, there were additional problems on press night when an actor suffering from a stomach bug was forced to pull out midway through. The replacement actors both won plaudits for their roles, however, and put the rather ill-fated show back on track.

The last bankside Merchant was in 1998, and was directed by Richard Olivier, with a particular bent towards multiculturalism (see Reviews, 4 June 1998). This well-known but controversial Shakespeare piece sees wealthy heiress Portia set potential suitors a challenge. As part of the efforts to win her over, Antonio borrows from the moneylender Shylock, who demands a pound of flesh should Antonio default on the loan.

Globe regular John McEnery plays the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to Dale Rapley’s Antonio. Kirsty Besterman was elevated to the female lead, Portia, and Philip Cumbus took on Bassanio. Designs are by Liz Cooke, with music composed by Adrian Lee.

Response was mostly very positive, though the handling of race and religion was criticized by some as engendering unnecessary and insensitive laughter. The nature of the audience, however, was equally blamed for this reaction. Whilst there are “passages of excruciating tedium”, there are enough fresh ideas brought to this problem play by its deliberately convention-exploring approach to make it “glitter divertingly” and receive an interested nod from some. It was felt elsewhere that the production was “crudely reductionist”, and relied too much on laughter and clowning and ignored both the sympathetic side of Shylock, and the complexities of certain scenes. The reaction was mixed as to whether the style enhanced previously-neglected nuances, or simply showed a “lack of vigour”.

  • Maxwell Cooter on (four stars) - "It’s Macbeth that’s supposed to be the unlucky play, but this production of {The Merchant of Venice::E8821183121294} seems to be turning received wisdom on its head. First of all, the part of Portia was recast following the withdrawal of Michelle Duncan and, midway through the press performance, the actor playing Gratiano had to retire owing to gastric illness… If this is a production wilting under an array of unforeseen circumstances, perhaps directors should go around administering salmonella cocktails to their casts because all the problems haven’t affected the quality at all - this is a production that buzzes from start to finish… Rebecca Gatward has brought out every scrap of comedy of the play, something that many modern productions are loath to do… In particular, the flight of Jessica in the midst of a Venetian carnival is superbly achieved… Gatward doesn’t skirt around the issue of racism and anti-semitism – it’s hard to avoid in this play. John McEnery’s Shylock, sporting his yellow badge, is clearly part of the excluded class, even if his accent from time to time veers uncomfortably close to a parody of Jewishness… The real triumph is Kirsty Besterman’s Portia… reminding us that Portia is a spoiled, rich kid sporting all the certainty of her class… A special cheer too for Craig Gazey. Not only is he a Lancelot Gobbo who’s actually funny, but on press night, he also had to play Gratiano after the interval and managed it with aplomb… This is the Globe at its best, managing, at the same time, to combine traditional elements of the play with a modern sensibility."

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times (two stars) – “Gatward… has not been brave enough. There are some nicely judged performances here, and the odd occasion when the groundlings are made disconcertingly complicit in the drama’s antisemitism. But the pace is pedestrian, and the comedy rarely cuts loose from predictability. Despite a Renaissance setting featuring strikingly creepy commedia dell’arte masks, there’s scant sense either of the ruthlessness of commerce or of the wildness of the carnivalesque. The play’s savagery is tamed, its laughter restrained… The youth of Venice display their lust for life in much rowdy springing about, and Philip Cumbus as Bassanio, with his big blond hair and brothel-creeper shoes, is a playboy about town. Full of self-conscious charm, he flirts outrageously with Dale Rapley’s rather stolid Antonio, and rewards the promise of a loan with a calculated kiss. Once smitten with Kirsty Besterman’s sparky Portia, though, he is transfigured, changed by love for a clever woman from boy to man. Besterman, too, offers an interesting interpretation, watching in disdain as buffoonish suitors parade before her disapproving alabaster face and dismissing the Prince of Morocco with a nasty shard of racism… But there are many disappointments here, notably John McEnery’s underpowered and oddly colourless Shylock. There’s something vague and half-hearted about his performance… he is neither comic villain nor convincingly complex human victim… his agony is frustratingly understated… the production briefly shows its teeth when the actors encourage the audience to participate in mocking Shylock with the chant “my ducats and my daughter”. But lack of vigour and conviction makes the whole slow going.”

  • Lyn Gardner in The Guardian (two stars) – “Gatward's play - despite the presence of its very own Rialto Bridge - often seems more Canary Wharf than Venice. Liz Cooke's clever costumes are 17th century via the pinstripes of the modern city slicker, and Antonio's young friends exude a shallow, braying confidence. The self-possession of privilege is also apparent in Kirsty Besterman's dry-as-a-bone heiress Portia; there is a very good moment in the trial scene when it seems as if her natural I-can-do-anything arrogance may have led her to over-extend herself… Excluded from the club, it is not surprising that John McEnery's bony, almost skeletal, Shylock is so eaten up with rage - as if grudge and anger have turned inwards and are consuming him. Portia's dismissal of her suitors, Morocco and Aragon, is further evidence of her elitist mindset… This idea of the distorting effect of privilege could have been mined further, and it may be that the production still needs time to deepen and grow but, for now, Gatward prefers to take the easier option of playing for laughs… It is certainly fun. In fact, it is quite the jolliest Merchant I have ever seen. But it feels like a cop-out, as if the director hopes that by playing up the slapstick we won't be too worried by the anti-semitism. You can mask it, but there is nowhere for it to hide.”

  • Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph -"The fact is that I'm bored stiff with this unlovable piece. It's a broken-backed drama, because Shylock is such a commanding, troubling and tragic figure that he makes the romantic comedy scenes seem unbearably tedious and inane… But the Globe has a knack of throwing fresh light on plays, and so it proves again here. This certainly isn't a great production, and there are passages of excruciating tedium. But in its own odd way, the show is unexpectedly revelatory. It is the audience that supplies much of the insight… They seem to find laughing at a Jew funny, and to experience no guilt whatever about doing so. It's as if dozens of shameless Borats are in the audience, and as Shylock suffers the loss of his daughter and his ducats, there are great bursts of merriment… Then there is the performance of John McEnery as Shylock. McEnery is a regular and reliable old trouper at the Globe, but he is an actor with little charisma and the role of Shylock looks like a reward for long service… he entirely misses the grandeur, the humanity and the humour which bigger, better actors bring to the role… He doesn't even have the wit and glitter of a memorable stage villain… No, the real star of Rebecca Gatward's intelligent if excessively leisurely production is Kirsty Besterman, who… gives us a delightfully warm and intelligent Portia. She really seems to be thinking on her feet during the trial, and her manifest love for Bassanio is the more touching because it is clear from Philip Cumbus's slick performance that he is an opportunistic lightweight who is only marrying her for money… Full marks, too, to Craig Gazey, who somehow makes that dire clown Launcelot Gobbo almost funny as well as taking over at the press performance from a Gratiano suddenly taken ill with a stomach bug."

  • Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail (four stars) - "The medieval-design Globe has a different feel from most theatres. There is something democratic and unrestrained about its audiences, particularly the youthful "groundlings" who stand at the front. What is striking about this jaunty production is that the punters suspend their 21st-century sensitivity and throw themselves into the comedy. And comedy there is, as director Rebecca Gatward rightly identifies - the comedy girly Portia and Nerissa (charming Kirsty Besterman and Jennifer Kidd) as they appraise the men. Is there maybe something almost pantomime-ish about Shylock's comeuppance, too? John McEnery overcomes a slightly dodgy beard to deliver a calmly vengeful Shylock. Could he maybe give him ten per cent more malevolence? That might make the show too sharp, though. The laughter - always strongest from the groundlings - took me aback at times (big cackles, for instance, at the suggestion that Shylock convert to Christianity). But I like to hope it was the sort of laughter we nowadays direct at the main lending banks rather than any animus to an outnumbered Jewish man. There is a good, sturdy Antonio from Dale Rapley. Philip Bird also has fun doing the Prince of Aragon almost as Manuel the waiter, his Iberian aspirants all heavy and phlegmy."

  • Nicholas de Jongh in The Evening Standard - “I cannot remember a more crudely reductionist reading of The Merchant of Venice than Rebecca Gatward's. The key to her production is a Shylock, who seldom rises above the level of stock Elizabethan villain, though not the comic or complex sort of Miss Gatward's imagining… John McEnery plays the money-lender as a dehumanised creature, sporting a pointy beard and a voice confined to low-grade snarls of resentment. He scarcely grieves for daughter Jessica (Pippa Nixon), who joins the Christians. McEnery's listless demand for that pound of flesh is redolent of natural-born evil rather than the fanaticism of a revenger and outcast, enraged by Venetian society's anti-semitism. … Here the Venetian Merchants, dressed in vaguely Elizabethan costumes, are sentimentalised as buoyant, young hearties. Philip Cumbus, though, convincingly makes Bassanio, a handsome, bisexual fortune-hunter, who seals his erotic-financial hold over Dale Rapley's smitten, gloomy Antonio by planting a long kiss on the older man's eager lips… These apt, dark notes of comedy strengthen a play that broods over the value of both love and money. Sadly they are not sustained. In Belmont, for which designer Liz Cooke supplies a vivid, rural back-cloth that remains when the scene returns to Venice, Portia proves to be a bland heiress in search of the right man. The casket scenes are played to broadish comic effect. Kirsty Besterman, who took over the role of Portia three weeks ago, often sounds flat and charmless. She pleads in court with muted commitment, in face of a Bassanio who never makes it clear whether he succumbs to the heiress's wealth, body or a bit of both.”

  • Lucy Powell in Metro (three stars) - "Director Rebecca Gatward has decided to embrace Shakespeare’s apparent racism, rather than brush it under a politically correct carpet. She then wisely shares the maliciousness around, infusing the whole production with brash comedy… John McEnery’s Shylock is a bent, scabrous miser, frantically hoarding his gold and his girl… Kirsty Besterman’s Portia is brilliantly catty, while Philip Cumbus’s Bassanio is a deeply tainted hero who nevertheless exudes a winsome charm … But the raucous, carnivalesque take has its drawbacks. The delicate homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio never approaches credibility. More fatally, Shylock’s soulful anguish is almost entirely absent from the stage. Without it, the play seems weirdly slight; it glitters divertingly but lacks any truly unsettling substance."

    - by Stuart Denison