THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
King Edward VI School Chelmsford
Shakespeare in schools has come a long way since I was Shylock – KEGS' bright, zippy Merchant of Venice turned its back on Italy and the 16th century, taking us instead to the heady days of City Slickers in the 1980s, the period brought to ghastly life with Wham!, brick-sized mobiles and carefully chosen costumes.
I admired the energy of the young cast, and their way with the text: no liberties taken here, save for some welcome cuts.
Lewis Wood made a thoughtful Shylock right from the start, in a domestic moment with his daughter [a vivacious Martha Jenkinson], and, after some stormy exchanges, dignified at the end as he loses everything. The laddish traders were excellently done – Luke Higgins' Bassanio especially brought out the emotional depth of his character, with some exceptional verse speaking. Portia, a strong young woman and an astute lawyer, was Pippa Searle, and the Merchant himself, sad at the outset and lucky to survive the Jew's machinations, was confidently played by Bart Lambert.
James Russell's production was enlivened by music, both live and recorded, and by clever use of telephones. The opening moments were echoed in a touching coda, with Jessica now rich, but fatherless, alone on stage.
James Russell and his talented young players bring us a Merchant of youthful exuberance, the wooing and the banter every bit as important as the famous Pound of Flesh.
Though the production does have a historical setting – the 1980s, with its carefree financiers, its chunky cell phones and its distinctive taste in clothes. And in the goody bag with the programme – parma violets and a mask of The Gipper ...
Two devices cement the action – the phones [mostly immobile], bringing news, announcing arrivals and enabling Antonio to plead with the Jew from his prison cell in Act III. And "the sweet power of music": not just the ghetto-blaster soundtrack to the decade [Wham!] but the polyphony of the office phones, the Dixie car horn heralding Bassanio's return, a lovely naïve setting of Fancy Bred, and, for Antonio and countless others, not a lute, but a grand piano centre stage, punctuating the verse with snatches of melody.
Shakespeare's words were in general well served, with intelligent readings and clear enunciation. Particularly impressive work from Luke Higgins as Bassanio [the letter bearing bad news a highlight of a superbly sustained characterization] and Martha Jenkinson as Jessica, Shylock's daughter, given a refreshingly upbeat interpretation here, as she elopes with her lucky Lorenzo [Max Brown]. I liked the way that she was left to end the play, with a sad recollection of her defeated father.
She begins the piece, too, in this version – God and Mammon neatly contrasted on either side of the stage.
Lots of energy from the traders, in confident performances from Ed Alston as Gratiano and Bart Lambert as Antonio, the Merchant of the title whose flesh is almost sacrificed for his special friend Bassanio. Their emotional farewell was moving without being mawkish.
The suitors who queue up in Belmont for a chance to open Portia's casket were strongly established by Hassam Ahmed as Morocco, and Tom Crowe as Aragon with his badly broken English.
Portia herself was done with nice C20 ennui by Pippa Searle; she shone en travesti in the trial scene, clearly enjoying her Mercy speech and the chance to turn the tables on the moneylender. And she was well supported by Nerissa [Ruth Tyson], amusingly gruff as her clerk.
Tom Adam was a sober presiding Duke, and Ciaran Saward did what he could with the remnants of the clown's part – Old Gobbo totally chopped in the interests of tautening the action.
Lewis Wood rose to the challenge of Shylock, berating his daughter perusing the Business Pages [useful for stage asides] and thoughtfully shaping his long speeches. I admired his modesty and dignity at the end, when he is subjected to overt Jew-baiting, and finally casts off his kippah as he leaves the stage.
Against a fairy-lit backdrop of the City [set design by HyungBinLim], KEGS gave us a slick, fast-paced "comedy", a suspenseful look, from a fresh perspective, at love, life and the risk of their loss.