The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Derby LIVE
Derby Theatre
(2011)

Only days after the announcement that Derby city council had overlooked its artistic arm Derby LIVE in favour of an application from the University of Derby for Arts Council funding, Derby LIVE is putting on its latest production, The Merchant of Venice.

There's been no response from Derby LIVE staff about how they view developments - but they must have been as distraught as Shylock when he hears he can take only a pound of flesh and no blood.

The authority's refused to explain the reasons for its decision; but will council bosses feel like one of Portia's suitors, wondering whether they've opened the right box?

It would be a great loss if Derby LIVE's artistic producer Pete Meakin decided his future no longer lies with the organisation. He's been responsible for the return of Shakespeare to the professional stage in the city and he's come up with a couple of marvellous versions of the Bard's work.

Two years ago he directed Much Ado About Nothing, setting it in the swinging '60s during the time of Beatlemania, miniskirts and free love. That was performed in the city's small but intimate Guildhall Theatre.

Now he's taking on The Merchant of Venice, regarded as challenging and complex because of its themes of anti-Semitism and persecution. He's set the play in the late 1920s, a period of decadence just before the Wall Street Crash.

There's no doubt that designer Patrick Connellan has done an excellent job creating Meakin's vision of a society in which cash is king. But apart from the music which vividly recalls the jazz age, there's not much to suggest that you're in the roaring '20s. However, the production succeeds admirably without that.

The action starts with a group of people playing roulette in a casino which sits within a stock exchange; the risks facing people like Antonio and Bassanio are clear.

This contrasts starkly with the splendour and lavishness of Belmont with its manicured lawn and genteel manners which have become a bore for Portia.

The grand setting would take on too much significance if the acting weren't up to the mark. Thankfully Meakin has assembled a talented, 11-strong cast whom you can bet on to produce an entertaining show.

Shakespeare veteran Paul Rider gives an astute performance as Shylock, his moving description of how others have maltreated the Jew leaving you with no question as to why he wants revenge on Antonio. You almost feel sorry for him towards the end when his world collapses around him.

George Telfer, who played Leonato in Meakin's production of Much Ado, seems slightly unsure of himself at the beginning but soon settles into the role of Antonio. There's almost tangible tension when he's strapped down waiting for Shylock to take his pound of flesh and he's majestic in his showing mercy to the Jew.

Camilla Arfwedson is a delightful Portia, suitably aristocratic, at times mischievous and likeable even when she's being manipulative. It's a pity that towards the end of evening her projection isn't as good as it is at the start.

She forms a good partnership with Haz Webb as Narissa, although the latter tends to get louder near the finale.

There are more than capable performances from the rest of the cast, especially Sam Phillips as a contrite Bassanio and Peter Caulfield as an effervescent Gratiano.

Meakin directs with panache and assuredness which results in the audience finding humour in some unexpected places.

The Merchant of Venice is a clever, stylish production. Let's hope it's not Meakin's swansong for Derby Theatre.

"The Merchant of Venice" runs until February 26th

Steve Orme