Saturday, 14 July 2012

Creation Theatre's The Merchant of Venice at The Said Business School Rooftop Ampitheatre, Oxford, OX1 1HU Until end August.

As a 'comedy', The Merchant of Venice has possibly attracted more modern critical comment than any other of his plays has. Much of this hinges on the characterization of Shylock, the usurious Jew, resolved to extract vengeance on the wet melancholic Antonio. It is clearly then, an awkward play to stage.

So how do you present the recalcitrant lead as other than a negatively cheap caricature of the moneylender yet remain true to the dramatic themes? An actor must be aware of not playing him too villainously by emphasising his 'Jewishness' and resulting in a fusillade of moral outrage. It is a challenge facing any production.

Glad to say, Creation succeeds in confronting the complications, achieving a gratifying fusion of romance and tragedy. No longer is it just about Shylock but more an examination of late sixteenth century culture and mores with all its subtleties and complexities, however fantastical. 

Set against a Thirties dockland backdrop with suitable musical punctuation it neatly balances the excesses of Shylock and his enemies, leaving neither party blameless. Shylock may indeed be appear ruthless man but derided mercilessly by the merchant Antonio and furthermore destroyed by the loss of daughter Jessica (Fiona Sheehan) who can blame him? His desire for 'a pound of flesh' is the bitter result and to his credit, Jonathan Oliver's portrayal of Shylock is caustic yet dignified. His crushed pride at the treatment he receives from the court after the defeat is intense and tangible. 

On a lighter note and in contrast to the Venetian political arena, a romantic sub-plot endures in the idealised marginal world of Belmont. Overseen by Portia (Leila Crerar) and her confidante Nerissa (Louise Callaghan) it offers an opportunity to emphasise the comic aspects. The best illustration of this is the handling of the casket scenes. We witness the outrageous self-regard of Portia's two failed suitors Gabriel Fleary's Morocco and Scott Brooksbank's Arragon. Their superb capacity for physical and verbal comedy punctuates the darker realms of the play. Both are far more effective than Shakespeare's 'official' clowns Lancelet and his 'sand blind' father. 

Overall, Creation's open air and 'weatherproof' production directed by Natalie Abrahami is a rewarding and gripping contemporary reading. It is imbued with the right amount of comic elements so that we can reclaim it, as I guess it was meant to be, as a 'dark comedy'. 
It is still however an unsettling illustration of an unforgiving Renaissance society and something we have to accept however unpalatable to our modern sensibilities.

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