The Merchant Of Venice (Tour – Salford)

Bringing a modern twist to any Shakespeare production whilst retaining the text is never an easy job, but it’s one that Edward Hall and his Propeller Theatre Company throw themselves into with gusto.

Set within the close confines of a prison called Venice, the inter-relationships of the characters are emphasised. But somehow it did, for me, detract from some of the text of the play, at times.

The two main protagonists, Antonio (Bob Barrett) and Shylock (Richard Clothier), are well played. Antonio suffers by being rather underwritten in many ways but Barrett brings out the depth in the role excellently. Clothier, a long-standing Propeller member, uses both his physical presence and vocal talents to bring the Jewish moneylender to life.

The majority of the other characters are equally as strong. Jack Tarlton’s Bassanio shows great emotional variation. Portia (Jon Trenchard) is a strange androgynous figure. He takes to the role very capably but the direction of Portia makes her/him seem in a constant emotional state, not the strong woman I recall from the original text.

In true Propellor tradition we have men playing the female roles, playing male prisoners who are playing women or maybe cross-dressers. Whilst it works on many levels, on others it did leave me a little confused over how the text and staging were meant to work together. It is bound to confuse anyone who is new to the text also.

But, even so, this production is directed with real panache by Hall, who draws great things from his team of actors. Michael Pavelka‘s set consists of stark depressing prison cells and some are pulled into centre stage.

The high level of aggression and violence does detract from a great play. Its reason for being there seems to be there because of the location rather than because of the plot. Maybe this is a way of trying to get a different viewpoint to the text: but gratuitous actions, such as the gouging out of a character’s eye by Shylock, only shock the audience without actually adding anything new.

This is a highly unusual and well produced version of the play and highly recommended. However, I’m just not really sure about how they’ve conceived it. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, after all!

-Helen Jones