Through the shouting and banging of five men from within the claustrophobic confines of a steel cell, the Jailer poses a question: “Which is the Christian, and which is the Jew?” at the beginning of Edward Hall’s pocket-sized production of “The Merchant of Venice”. Set in a prison called “Venice”, Propeller’s all-male company brought to life Shakespeare’s Venice in all its economic conflict and power, in the 60 minute long play. Stripped of the romantic sub-plots and other distractions, the play stands stark, nakedly displaying the sinister human propensity to “kill the things they do not love”.
By returning to the traditional roots of Shakespearean plays, Hall uses his all-male cast to create a testosterone fuelled conflict, bursting with their violent brutish energies.
Kelsey Brookfield’s mesmerizing portrayal of Portia is complex and subtle, played with a truthful conviction. Neal Craig’s Bassanio has tears in his eyes when regretfully clutching onto his beloved Antonio before the trial and Ben Allen’s Antonio brings to the production a melancholy tone with flashes of intense and confused rage.
Unlike Sir Henry Irving who played Shylock with grandeur and sentiment in his 1879 production, Thomas Padden provides an entirely unsympathetic interpretation of Shylock. Complete with his yarmulke and beard, his Jewish identity is ‘spared no mercy’, nor does it have to be – Hall mentioned in one interview that he set the play in the early 1930s so as to avoid any association with the holocaust, which can put pressure on directors to put on very politically correct plays. Director Jonathan Miller cut many of Shylock’s lines deemed too offensive, in his 1970 National Theatre production.
The concept of a prison makes the play far more accessible to a modern audience. With a prison naturally come all the themes of entrapment, division and rivalry present in Shakespeare’s Venice. A struggle for power is evident from the very beginning, between Shylock and Antonio as is the idea of homosexuality between Antonio and Bassanio – although not to the extent of New York’s 1977 production where Antonio and his friends were played as camp homosexuals.
The situation is played to the full in this modern adaptation implying guilt on each character’s part -although the crimes for which they are imprisoned are not clear, allowing us to consider more metaphorical interpretations. Perhaps they are all trapped within the confines of their own narrow minds. Perhaps it is the cruel prejudice they have experienced – particularly in Shylock’s case – at the hands of their society that teaches them only one way to behave. Either way, they are obliged to attempt an escape.
In the final image Antonio sits alone, cross-legged and pensive.
This superb and stimulating production is heavy with ideas and inventiveness. It is most certainly up-to-date in its thoughtful exploration of conflicting religious beliefs, intolerance and justice, and the destructive consequences they can have.