The Merchant of Venice at the Barbican Theatre

There s one clear reason for going to see Gregory Doran s production of The Merchant of Venice: Philip Voss s superb performance as Shylock.

There are still some people who are put off the idea of going to see this play as their modern sensibilities find it hard to cope with the in-your-face anti-semitism and, in truth, they have been plenty of performances over the year that have presented Shylock as a scheming, malevolent, grasping caricature. Perhaps in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, with the character being presented as an innocent victim of prejudice, although this doesn t ring true to the text.

This Shylock belongs to neither tradition - Voss steers a path straight down the centre of the two approaches. His portrayal is of a character driven by thoughts of revenge - not through spite but because this Shylock feels that he can do no other. This is a coolly rational Shylock who maintains his right to exact his terrible bounty through a calculating, Talmudic thought process. And having mustered all his legal and intellectual arguments, he looks particularly dumbstruck when they are thrown back in his face. You will seldom see Shylock s downfall better handled, this is a bravura display of acting.

It s a pity that the rest of the cast can t match up to Voss s efforts. Only Julian Curry s ascetic-looking Antonio registers much of an impression. In fact, these Venetian Christians are not nearly nasty enough - although the carnival scene is brilliantly handled. In a particularly cruel touch, the revellers bait Shylock wearing pig masks so he catches a glimpse of Jessica apparently being snatched by a herd of swine.

Scott Hardy s Bassanio is a dull dog who never really convinces us as to why Antonio should put himself at such risk (not much homo-eroticism here). You ll certainly find it hard to understand why Portia should get so excited at his appearance at Belmont. But then Helen Schlesinger doesn t make any impression as Portia. She can neither capture the hauteur nor indeed the inherent nastiness of the character and her tendency to garble her lines doesn t help either.

John Dougall s Gratiano is a more subtle portrayal than is usual, and I liked Emma Handy s Jessica, who, by the end, is looking decidedly ashamed at the way her father has been treated. And full marks to Doran for cutting out the part of Old Gobbo, if only more directors would.

But, at the end of the day, it s Voss s Shylock who steals the show. Get down to the Barbican and witness it - you won t see a better Shylock, nor indeed a better Shakespearean performance.

Maxwell Cooter