Tragedy meets bawdiness in Venice

The Merchant of Venice, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, until February 27SHAKESPEARE offers directors and actors alike an awful lot to go at. Every scene, every line invites different interpretations and spurs to action.

Mark Crossley

The Merchant of Venice, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, until February 27

Shakespeare offers directors and actors alike an awful lot to go at. Every scene, every line invites different interpretations and spurs to action.

With this Theatre Royal production of The Merchant of Venice director Abigail Anderson enhances a claim to adeptness at wringing every ounce of comedy and tragedy from the Bard's text. Not to mention downright bawdiness.

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Last year's Twelfth Night was a case in point: this year's Merchant continues the theme.

It is at its heart a grim tale, revolving around Antonio's ill-fated bargain with a money lender; a bond that will end with him screaming as the point of a dagger is pressed to his heart. It is also a story about anti-semitism, long passages peppered with racist insults and caricature making uncomfortable viewing for a modern audience.

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But for all that, it is in the canon of Shakespeare's comedies: nobody dies and there are marriages aplenty. This production also deserves the description comedy by a modern definition, albeit it is rather dark comedy.

Laugh out loud scenes include two featuring suitors attempting to solve the riddles which will win them Portia's hand in marriage. First, Liam Tobin - whose main job is as blustering nobleman Gratiano - arrives as the priapic, strangely Welsh Prince of Morocco. The various angles of his scimitar give clues to his mood and intentions, and his delivery of the dialogue conjures comedy and pathos.

Second up is Antony Eden, as the Prince of Aragon, muy estupido and with a hilarious Spanish accent. The audience's reactions are mirrored and enhanced by those of Portia and Nerissa, a tremendous double act of the luminous Joannah Tincey and Devon Black.The audience has a big part to play in this production. House lights remain up throughout: there is nowhere to hide, no anonymity in the dark. When Shylock appeals to the court of public opinion in several moving scenes, the effect is doubled by the fact that we know he can see us. A strong trial scene uses the audience as the Venetian crowd. You could hear a pin drop.

The lights-up approach also allows for full use of the pit and galleries as the drama plays out. Musical director TJ Holmes, who excels as servant Launcelot Gobbo, sits in the audience to play cello as lovers Jessica (Amy Humphreys) and Lorenzo (also Eden) deliver a touching “On such a night as this” scene. The effect of Shakespeare's words well delivered, the music and a huge moon hanging in the sky is magical.

The lack of distance between audience and players is enhanced by Gobbo's appearance in the bar at half-time and showing people back to their seats, before serenading a lady in the audience with O Sole Mio, a seamless and imaginative introduction to the next Act.

But looming large over all this frivolity is Jonathan Keeble's charismatic, challenging Shylock. With a voice reminiscent of Colin Firth's he attracts sympathy even when at his most obdurate and cruel. He is as much victim as villain and Keeble, tall and angular, from his unusual loping gait to his fascinating fingers which appear double-jointed, brings out every nuance of this complex character.

It is a stand-out performance among many good portrayals. Dominic Marsh is a handsome, open Bassiano and Oliver Senton a solid Antonio.

If there is one small hitch it is the number of near-misses actors have with the columns which make up a set inspired by the theatre's own architecture.

Ultimately, we are left laughing as Nerissa and Gratiano run laughing from the stage, silhouetted against a beautiful orange sunrise.

Mark Crossley

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