It’s Macbeth that’s supposed to be the unlucky play, but this production of The Merchant of Venice 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. It says much for the professionalism of Marc Rice-Oxley that he hadn’t allowed his illness to affect his performance unduly.
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. Memories of the Globe’s rather unhappy 1998 production of the play have been well and truly banished.
Rebecca Gatward has brought out every scrap of comedy of the play, something that many modern productions are loath to do. But, this is a comedy, albeit a dark one, and by emphasising the humour, Gatward has brought something fresh to it. In particular, the flight of Jessica in the midst of a Venetian carnival is superbly achieved.
It’s customary these days to draw on Merchant’s homoerotic elements, but it’s taken one step further here. Philip Cumbus’ Bassanio gives Antonio a full-on kiss when he’s loaned the money. And his horseplay with his friends suggests that the marriage to Portia will not exactly be one founded on a deep sexual yearning.
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 – even more astonishing when one realises that Besterman is a stand-in. Portia is a complex character, nominally the heroine, but with an underlying nastiness in the character. The actress brings out all of these aspects, reminding us that Portia is a spoiled, rich kid sporting all the certainty of her class. Occasionally, the Globe’s harsh acoustics defeat her, but it’s an accomplished performance nonetheless. 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.
Unusually for the Globe, there’s an actual set courtesy of Liz Cooke. A bridge traverses the groundlings’ area and a jetty for gondolas, brilliantly drawing the audience in. Adrian Lee’s music is a perfect complement to the action, adding another dimension to the production. This is the Globe at its best, managing, at the same time, to combine traditional elements of the play with a modern sensibility.