The Merchant of Venice (St Leonard's, Shoreditch)
Shakespeare's comic drama is given an atmospheric staging by Malachite Theatre
Whoever came up with the idea to perform Shakespeare inside spooky Shoreditch Church should be applauded. It's not only the burial place of Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage but also close to the former sites of some of England's earliest playhouses where Shakespeare's own Lord Chamberlain's Men once played.
St Leonard's has such an evocative atmosphere, simply lacking on a conventional stage, that it could give the edge to almost any Shakespeare play performed here. Laundry hangs from the church ceiling, setting the stage for a bustling Venetian street scene. And performers use every inch of the space, including the overlooking second floor where, at one point, a violinist can be spotted.
Yet punters be advised: choosing to sit further back may give you the benefit of perspective, but you'll sacrifice the ability to hear the speeches.
The Merchant Of Venice is the second play to be staged at the church by director Benjamin Blyth and production company Malachite Theatre, following last year's Titus Andronicus. Obviously ambience is not the only consideration for the troupe since both plays are not commonly performed.
Less courageous producers are possibly turned off by the prospect of putting on the gore fest that is Titus and equally less keen to confront the anti-Semitic undertones inherent in The Merchant Of Venice, at odds with modern sensibilities but nevertheless a fact of Elizabethan life.
Needing funds to woo beautiful heiress Portia, suitor Bassanio seeks help from his merchant friend Antonio. But all Antonio's wealth lies with his ships at sea so he makes a deal with Jewish moneylender and usurer Shylock to borrow the hard cash Bassanio needs, agreeing to give him a pound of his own flesh if he doesn't repay him at a future date.
The downfall of Shylock, superbly played by Stephen Connery-Brown in the sympathetic mould, has become of the most memorable and controversial aspects of Shakespeare's entire oeuvre. Simon Chappell's frail Antonio is another stand out, his few words and sickly demeanour perfectly representative of a man completely at the mercy of events around him.
Portia (Lucy Kilpatrick) and Nerissa (Danielle LaRose) have an almost girly relationship. Meanwhile Robert Madeley's Lancelet Gobbo lives up to Russian actor and theatre director Constantin Stanislavski's famous words "there are no small parts, only small actors" in nailing the play's toughest speech.
A great cast and imposing site-specific location all for £12 surely make this production one of the best value for money currently showing in London.