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The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
(2008)

Tim Carroll established a reputation as an innovator during six years as associate director at Shakespeare's Globe in London. His all-male Twelfth Night received Evening Standard, Olivier, Time Out and Critics' Circle awards; he turned Richard II from a history into a comedy; and he used only three actors in The Tempest. He could almost be guaranteed not to take a conventional look at the Bard's works.

Now he's directing his first play for the RSC and it's obvious he's taken on board a comment from RSC artistic director Michael Boyd who famously said a couple of years ago, "I'm all for buggering about with Shakespeare."

Carroll, in taking a fresh look at The Merchant of Venice, gives us a modern-dress production without any of the stereotypes normally associated with the play. For instance, Shylock is not the small, seedy, Fagin-esque character who appears in so many depictions of this problem comedy but a tall, ruthless businessman. However, portraying Shylock in this way has a debilitating effect: it nullifies the power and the profundity of his "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech and we don't feel any sympathy for his plight.

This is in no way a fault of Angus Wright who gives the role everything he has; it's Carroll's concept which is lacking.

The play is well acted by an enthusiastic ensemble whose enunciation can't be faulted. They even throw themselves effervescently into a strange dance at the beginning and the end which seems totally out of place. But at times they appear to be fighting a losing battle against mediocrity.

There are occasional beacons: exuberant Jack Laskey (Bassanio) and John Paul Connolly as the volatile Gratiano do their best to lift the production out of the ordinary while Larrington Walker gives a laudable performance in his all too brief role as Old Gobbo.

Visually there's little in the production to excite you. The men are dressed in grey suits with sober ties which do little to lighten the gloom and tend to amplify the depressive sequences.

Georgina Rich, an accomplished Portia - although her dresses don't do her any favours - and Amanda Hadingue as her waiting-woman Nerissa work well together, especially during the scene in which Nerissa describes the suitors who are trying to win the wealthy Portia's hand in marriage. There's interaction with the audience which is both clever and very funny.

Surprisingly, though, there's little hilarity in the scenes involving Launcelot Gobbo which in other productions of The Merchant of Venice that I've seen have raised the most laughs.

James Garnon gives a solid performance as Antonio, making the most of a multitude of facial expressions as his sorry story unravels.

But overall it's a very ordinary show. Perhaps Carroll buggered about with it a little too much.

"The Merchant of Venice" plays at Stratford in repertoire until September 27th and at Newcastle Theatre Royal from October 7th to 25th

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in Newcastle

Reviewer: Steve Orme