Published on Public Reviews on the 20th February 2015
In my opinion, The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s most problematic play. It throws together two varying plot strands; of suitors playing a game of roulette for Portia, of vicious anti-Semitism and persecution, it climaxes in the thrilling court scene before dragging on for the tiresome ring business. It’s a play that beats directors time and time again and normally gets by on the strength of its two main performances rather than a coalescing whole.
Getting Bill Alexander is a bit of a coup for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the renowned director’s production certainly catches the play’s nastiness. Shylock by the play’s end is one drowning in mucus and spittle gobbed over him during the course of the evening, he is a Jew physically and spiritually crushed by a rather unlikeable group of men who resemble, in their dark suits and smug privileged arrogance, members of the Riot Club. Over the years, Shylock has been played by the greats and this has lent the character a weight that means the trial feels like a genuine contest; here in Matt Jessup’s performance he is vulnerable, small physically and in spirit, pushed and bullied until he can’t take it anymore and then dismantled by Portia’s calculating rhetoric in the court until he roars a primal, animalistic scream that raises the hairs on the back of the neck. He has been beaten – there was never any doubt – and the ‘heroes’ have won. And then we have to spend another act in their company! Alexander doesn’t really solve this issue (indeed, the comedy in general is a little flat) and the play fizzles out as it drags into the fourth hour.
Alexander’s lifetime steeped in Shakespeare means that he brings to the play clarity, both to Shakespeare’s ideas and words. It’s a joy to hear the verse spoken as well as it is here by these graduating actors. For those who grumble about modern-day actors’ predisposition towards mumbling, this is the show to prove that we have actors with the capabilities of dealing with the language. It is a delight to see these final year students become a repertory company. After standing out in Alice In Wonderland, Kate Cavendish now gets her chance to shine as Portia. Dark haired, strikingly attractive, she brings a well-honed voice and an openness that allows you to see the thought process of the character. She is teasing, independent, jokey and viciously cruel during the trial. It’s a heady mix and suggests a bright future for Miss Cavendish.
There is sterling work throughout the comedy; Michael Harkin is a rather touching Launcelot Gobbo and does find some humour with his Irish brogue and bouncy stage presence, Amy Barnes manages to make something out of the usually impenetrable Nerissa and Zed Josef’s Antonio is a straight backed, towering leader of men whose relationship with Sam Woolf’s Bassanio suggests a love much deeper then brotherly, even as the latter betroths himself to Portia.
It is a night that showcases the actors’ talents with the verse more than it provides illuminating insights into this difficult play. The talent just about wins out.