The Merchant Of Venice @ Shakespeare’s Globe, London

cast list
John McEnery
Kirsty Besterman
Philip Bird
Cornelius Booth
Jim Bywater
Philip Cumbus
Leander Deeny
Craig Gazey
Adam Kay
Pippa Nixon

directed by
Rebecca Gatward
The sky did not look happy. It frowned and fretted and let fall a few menacing droplets of rain. The groundlings in the yard at the Globe exchanged worried glances and began to unfurl plastic capes and macs. But just as it seemed as if the heavens would open, the sky brightened again. Which was a good thing indeed, as this is a production that could use a bit of luck.

Already the press night had to be pushed forward as a result of the unexpected departure of Michelle Duncan, the original Portia, from the cast, and then on the evening before I attended, one of the actors (Mark Rice-Oxley who plays Gratiano) had to be replaced at the interval due to bout of gastric flue. His part was read by his understudy Craig Gazey.

All these upsets threatened to overshadow what is an intriguing if slightly unsatisfying production of what is often termed one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays. Rebecca Gatward’s production concentrates on bringing out the play’s humour and, while it doesn’t exactly downplay the Shylock plot, it doesn’t foist a contemporary reading onto this most contentious of characters.

Instead we get a very low-key, shuffling performance from John McEnery, one free of grandstanding to the point where that the most famous of speeches (“if you prick us, do we not bleed?”) is rattled off in an oddly resigned fashion rather than awkwardly fore-grounded as the moral centre of the play.

In doing this the play both gains something and loses something; the comedy is allowed to come through in a way that is rarely the case with this play, but at the same time some crucial weight is missing. There is little emotional colour in this production and the ironic sense of ‘justice’ meted out in the trial scene is somewhat undermined, becoming a callous joke rather than anything genuinely tragic.

Despite that, the focus on the comedy means that for the most part, this is a solidly entertaining piece of theatre with enough good performances to keep the audience engaged throughout. As well as McEnerys understated, performance as Shylock, there is Kirsty Besterman, promoted from the role of Nerissa at a late stage in proceedings, who is excellent as Portia, simultaneously self-regarding and commanding. Philip Cumbus meanwhile, plays Bassiano as a cocky and reckless, dandy, making them a very good match indeed.

The production also benefits from some inventive design touches by Liz Cooke, not least the erection of a Venetian style bridge that reaches from the stage into the yard and lets the groundlings become the waters of the Grand Canal.

Gatwards production will be too light and glossy for some but it makes for a fun evening at the theatre; its only on stepping out into the nippy summer air that you start to question what youve seen; the missing meat of the play, the hollow at its heart.

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