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The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review

A bold and modern reimagining of Shakespeare's classic play

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Adrian Schiller as Shylock and Ben Caplan as Solanio
© Tristram Kenton

It is always said that Shakespeare's works are timeless. These are plays that have endured for centuries, a remarkable fact which also poses questions about what characters and stories signify now compared with when they were created.

If there is one thing for which this production will be remembered, it is depicting The Merchant of Venice for exactly what it is – a play about a group of entitled and pompous villains mercilessly persecuting a Jewish man. As directors, Abigail Graham and Tash Hyman do not shy away from any challenging material. Their contemporary reimagining places these themes right in front of your eyes, barely allowing you to breathe – uncomfortable viewing ensues.

There is no better example than the production's conclusion. Simply put, it is hard to imagine there have been many versions of this play that end in such a brutal and chilling fashion. Whilst the ensemble of Christians rejoice in a win in court, a mournful Hebrew song drowns out their inane dialogue and celebrations. One by one the courtroom's candles are extinguished. During these sombre moments, the audience is focused solely on one man, the slowly withdrawing Shylock, who has lost his family and home, and been forced to renounce his religion. It is utterly tragic, yet simultaneously mesmerising.

Adrian Schiller's Shylock is deeply sympathetic, someone you find yourself rooting for among the crowd of spiteful characters. His hesitancy, even inability, to eventually take the flesh owed to him speaks volumes. In this production, he is an honest and pitiable man pushed to the absolute limit by a lifetime of antisemitic abuse.

Aside from the portrayal of Shylock, this is a modern interpretation of Shakespeare that feels exactly that – vibrant and fresh. There are small touches that indicate a 21st-century setting (think hand sanitiser and subtle Wolf of Wall Street references) but it is also evident in Sarah Beaton's set design as well. Given the trauma of the finale, it seems almost flippant to mention some of the previous scenes involving Portia's suitors, but these are easily the funniest of the entire production. Channelling a modern TV game show, this stretch is slightly Take Me Out meets Shakespeare but rather than being corny or annoying, it's an artistic decision that breathes life into a scene that might have read quite plainly on the page. Sophie Melville and particularly Tripti Tripuraneni excel as Portia and Nerissa in these moments, their chemistry onstage the strongest of the entire cast which is a statement in itself.

Seamless and intelligent scene changes maintain a thrilling pace toward the play's memorable ending, at which point the pressure in the room is unbearable given the tragedy that occurs. Schiller has spoken about how the apparent evilness of Shylock is something that "grew over centuries". This brilliant and uncompromising production has gone a long way to challenging that perception.