The ancient stones of Oxford Castle, standing in for the palazzos and courts of Venice, provide an imposing backdrop, all the more fitting for this play with its themes of justice and debating the letter of the law, because it was once a prison.
But the action unfolding on designer Sara Perk’s outdoor stage and catwalk beneath the walls is more concerned with funk than philosophy. Punctuated with appropriate pop anthems, it is set firmly in the present. The culture is chav - Kezia Burrows’ Portia and Amanda Haberland’s Nerissa, in designer shades, tiny shorts and tight leggings and dripping with bling, easily outdo footballers’ wives.
The TV references are deliberate, the casket scene transformed into The Key to my Heart, a game show complete with audience participation. So Gari Jones’ production is loud and ‘in yer face’, appealing to a youthful audience. But does it serve the play?
At times there’s danger of confusion, the more so because with a cast of eight, Jones opts for omitting or conflating characters as well as doubling roles. In the casket scene, the actor playing Gratiano appears to double as both unsuccessful suitors for Portia’s hand, but when Nerissa thrusts him a note, are we being asked to believe Morocco and Aragon are actually Gratiano in disguise?
Portia and Nerissa as Jade and Chantelle lookalikes may be fun, but it works against Portia’s protestations of modesty. And even in a Mafioso kangaroo court of law, it’s hard for her to assert plausible authority in her disguise as a top lawyer, huddled in a hoodie. The poetry too is sometimes sacrificed to speed up the action. There’s not much left of Lorenzo and Jessica’s fanciful love scene at Belmont.
Weighed against this, though, the dumb shows Jones choreographs between scenes prove surprisingly eloquent. Shylock hangs a chain with his dead wife’s ring around his daughter Jessica’s neck (feisty Natasha Pring) at their last embrace together before she elopes. It’s an affecting moment, anticipating his anguish when he hears she’s casually sold it. And hoodies are used to better effect when Venice’s lager louts threaten Shylock. The anti-Semitism is well handled – Shylock is a commanding presence and the Christians come over as insensitive and unappealing from the start.