All that glitters is not gold: Sport for Jove’s The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a famously thorny play. Usually called a comedy, it has a dark side to it which cannot be ignored. While it does encompass many scenes of focused around the idea of love or marriage as is wont in a Shakespearean comedy (comedies, after all, end with marriage), Antonio the titular merchant is accosted by Shylock, a money-lender, because he defaulted on the loan of 3,000 ducats and is thus required to pay the bond – the infamous pound of flesh.

Written in 1596, The Merchant of Venice was perhaps inspired by Christopher Marlowe’s hit-play, The Jew of Malta, and can thus be seen to vilify the character of Shylock as a kind of monster. However, as with many of Shakespeare’s villains, Shylock becomes more than just an Elizabethan caricature; the caricature is subverted and popular expectation is turned on its head. Initially established as a monstrous figure, by the time Shylock enters the harrowing trial scene that comprises the entirety of Act IV, his villainy has been eroded to the point where we can see what motivates him, what makes him breathe and tick; the oft-quoted “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, when performed well, is gut-wrenchingly affecting – Shylock is no longer a villain, but a human.
Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove is handsomely designed by Anna Gardiner in a 1930s setting, complete with parquet floor; while it doesn’t perhaps reach the heights of Shakespearean empathy and compassion we have come to expect from Sport for Jove, it is proficient if a little strained. The blocking too is curious – key scenes and speeches are delivered upstage, half the audience seeing only the actor’s back, and important moments do not seem to be staged for the York Theatre’s thrust stage, but rather for a more straight proscenium arch. The cast are all strong, but it never feels like there is any depth or connection to the characters – they are all rather two dimensional, and there is a fair amount of bombasting and declamatory acting, particularly from the Prince of Morocco, where it seems to be a case of ‘stand and deliver’, the text dumped upon us like a brick wall; it makes this thorny play somewhat more dense and prickly than it should be. For an experienced and well-versed director like Cottrell, it seems strange that this should be the case, especially as many of the actors have created such wonderfully idiosyncratic characters in the past, and not necessarily for Sport for Jove.
Lizzie Schebesta’s Portia is strong, but there doesn’t seem to be her characteristic flair or vitality to this rendering of the character. Unlike her Portia in 2013, there is no firecracker wit or sense of play here, even if her voice is perhaps the strongest and clearest out of the ensemble. The trial scene is capably staged, but there is no edge to it – we never feel the true danger that Antonio is in, nor do we feel the life-saving trump-card that Portia disguised as Balthasar delivers at the eleventh hour; instead, it feels very by-the-book, very safe, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to play Merchant, let alone Shakespeare. John Turnbull is strong as Shylock, and he brings out the menace and nuance in a difficult character. If there is one thing Cottrell gets right in this production, it’s the danger of Shylock, the single-minded nature of his quest for revenge and/or lawful justice, and Turnbull’s Shylock is dangerous in that we never quite know how he’s going to react at any given moment. Sure, there are beats where he descends into apoplectic rage just shy of foot-stamping and hair-tearing, but overall his is an effective rendering of the thorny character.

While this production seems drawn out at just under three hours, there is enough colour and life here to keep the action ticking over, to keep everything moving towards its ambiguous conclusion, even if it does come across as more strained than it should. While this Merchant is a competent addition to Sport for Jove’s stable of theatrical renderings, it is unfortunately not transcendent like many of their other productions.

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