The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare
Heartbreak Productions
Nottingham Castle and touring
(2007)

Production photo

Companies like Heartbreak which specialise in open-air productions must be relieved that the wettest summer on record has virtually ended.

There were times, particularly in July, when theatregoers understandably didn't want to sit outdoors in soggy surroundings. But actors didn't have the option of staying at home and had to go out every night even if conditions underfoot resembled a monsoon.

Heartbreak have had four shows on the road this summer, including the rarely-performed out-of-doors The Merchant of Venice. No doubt on some evenings they must have wished they'd taken a gondola with them. But when the tour ended at Nottingham Castle, thankfully there was no rain - only a balmy early evening with bright sunshine.

The cast and crew of The Merchant approached the last date with the sort of enthusiasm you could expect right at the beginning of the season.

Some critics regard The Merchant as a problem play although in Shakespeare's day it was seen as a comedy. Director Maddy Kerr seems to have approached it as a comedy as the cast aim to extract as many laughs as possible in the first half and aren't afraid to take a few liberties with the Bard's words if it leads to hilarity.

Before the play starts there's an auction of goods such as silks from Morocco and oil from Libya which allows for interaction with the audience who are able to arrange a loan with Shylock Money Lending Services if they can't hand over the correct amount of cash - in ducats, of course.

Heartbreak's modern-day version of The Merchant features a cast of six who, apart from Gemmy Kelly (Portia), take multiple roles. That's the main drawback as it can be difficult to tell some of the main characters apart and this must be quite confusing to anyone new to the play.

Thomas Hayler, whose booming voice must have been heard across most of Nottingham, does a fine job as the merchant Antonio whose business deals backfire so that he can't repay the money Shylock has loaned him. But Hayler also appears as Gratiano who falls in love with Portia's maid Nerissa; a change of costume is hardly enough to differentiate between the two.

Lawrence Aldridge gives a riveting performance as Bassanio, either perpetually concerned about his friend Antonio or worried whether his love for Portia will be reciprocated. But Aldridge also plays Lorenzo who runs away with Shylock's daughter Jessica; again there is little to distinguish the two characters.

The two most successful actors with various roles are David Bennett and Alexandra Turchyn.

Bennett is dignified as Salerio but totally different as Launcelot Gobbo, almost unrecognisable as he effortlessly produces some of the funniest moments of the evening.

Turchyn is appealing as Nerissa, both as the maid and when she is disguised as the court clerk, and also impresses as Jessica and the gaoler.

Daniel Carver is hugely enjoyable as Old Gobbo, the blind man who falls about a lot in amusing scenes with his son. But I didn't find Carver evil enough as Shylock; I didn't care too much whether the Jew was able to extract revenge from Antonio towards the end of the play.

As for Gemma Kelly, she puts an enormous amount of expression into every line as Portia - but she shows little of the refinement you expect from "a lady richly left". She is convincing enough when she dresses as a man and becomes a lawyer in the courtroom scene - yet she belts out her "The quality of mercy is not strain'd" speech as though she's trying to batter Shylock into submission rather than appealing to the better side of his nature.

On the whole, though, this version of The Merchant makes for a pleasurable experience; it's a commendable effort by a small cast of a difficult play which some companies wouldn't even bother to take on.

Reviewer: Steve Orme