'The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath. It is twice blest' Act IV, Scene I, The Merchant of Venice
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. My biggest fear when sitting down to watch the Falstaff Society’s first full length play, The Merchant of Venice, was less the prospect of watching the full-length play in its entirety, and more the worry that I was unsure of what the concept of this production was. Would it just be ‘Shakespeare for the sake of doing Shakespeare’? However, watching the play I was honestly embarrassed that I ever had any reservations about it, as Hope White’s brilliant production was both fun and raucous, while also darkly reflective.
In this production, much of the focus seems to be on Portia, (partly due to a stand out performance from Delilah Acworth, as well as some very clever directing) and the relationship between Bassiano and Antonio. This particular aspect of the play is done brilliantly, as the hints that Bassiano and Antonio are more than friends are evident but subtle, as Bassiano offers to give up his wife for him behind her back, earlier only kissing her on the forehead and then walking away with his friend in the final scene. Portia’s traditional happy ending is subverted and she is clearly still left alone, after all her waiting. This focus also draws away from Lorenzo and Jessica somewhat, giving us a chance to see Shylock (Kieran Boon) in a more sympathetic light. Although he is still painted as a villain, he is often seen alone, a target of insults. His principle monologue that asks the Venetians ‘Has a Jew not eyes?’, is delivered beautifully, showing the extent of discrimination he has experienced.
Another refreshing thing is the abundance of new faces and clear talent amongst them. Delilah Acworth, who I have mentioned above, quite honestly steals the show. Her Portia is strong, determined and incredibly funny, she pulls the pace along in scenes which might otherwise drag, captivating and controlling her audience. Rosa Hanscomb also makes Lancelot, a typical Shakespearean fool, seem to be one of the central characters, providing some of the funniest moments in the play but also moments of real depth, as we see the conditions that caused him to flee from Shylock’s house and the importance of his friendship with Jessica (Mimi Partridge). Joe Davidson is also an excellent Antonio: strong, commanding, passionate in his love for Bassiano and vehement in his hatred of Shylock.
Like any large production done on such a short time-scale there are some minor issues; there were moments where the pace dragged a little in the first act, possibly due to a few too many blackouts and fumbling with scene changes. But on the whole, it was an incredibly clever production, examining different interpretations of a classic text. The 50s theme didn’t necessarily add to the meaning of the play as a whole, but it did provide the excellent music for some brilliant ensemble scenes (choreographed by Clodagh Chapman) that injected the light-hearted fun and pace back into the play at various moments.
I would fully advise anyone to catch this play while they can, if not to see the incredible talent that’s showcased within it, then to see how to modernise a Shakespeare play effectively. There is a reason way some plays continue to be performed over and over, because there is really no end to what can be done with them. What Hope White and Jasmine Silk have done here is put on a truly entertaining, excellent production that also does something entirely new and exciting that is just as good, if not better, than the productions put on by Bristol’s biggest drama societies.