“For in converting Jews to Christians you raise the price of pork!”
Though it is a play oft studied, The Merchant of Venice has been most infrequently performed in recent years. Unafraid of a challenge, Malachite Theatre have chosen this play to mark the 450th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s birth at St Leonard’s Shoreditch, very close to the site of the Theatre and Curtain where many of his early plays were premiered. This modern-day retelling trims the action down to a shade under two and a half hours and offers an interesting, though not unproblematic, reading of the text.
The church offers a highly atmospheric auditorium and it is something Benjamin Blyth’s production takes full advantage of. Lines of laundry are strung high above piles of rubbish scattered throughout the nave, representing a Venetian society riven by inequality as Bassanio and his blazer-wearing, loafer-sporting, Pimms-quaffing friends party on regardless. And when funds start to run low, the trust fund baby turns to his benefactor Antonio for more, oblivious of his own financial difficulties and forcing him into the clutches of money-lender Shylock.
Claire-Monique Martin’s sound design locates the play firmly in the urban sprawl, and original music from Danielle Larose and Robert Madeley adds a beautiful theatricality. So the haunting strains of Jessica’s violin (Martin herself) captures both the restlessness of her spirit whilst in servitude to her father but also the aching gap left by her flight; Nerissa’s (Larose) song makes the choosing of the casket a spine-tingling moment; Lancelot Gobbo (Madeley) as a busking bum of sorts providing continuity throughout the entire play.
And the headstrong bullishness, even arrogance, of the entitled classes makes sense of this interpretation. Bassanio’s exploitation of Antonio’s longing for him, the carousing of the boys in onesies as they swagger about town and threaten violence against those not like them, even Portia’s cavalier attitude towards dispensing justice and testing her marital vows. Even the pernicious anti-semitism of this world feels like an extension of this mindset, although it is always difficult to bear witness to such attitudes, presented as they are here, as in the play, without interrogation.
Still, the energy of this young company is admirable and there are many attractive performances within. Charlie Woollhead’s fresh-faced Bassanio is puppyishly appealing, Portia’s intelligence shines brightly in Lucy Kilpatrick’s well-spoken turn as she deals adroitly with her hilariously unsuited suitors, and Stephen Connery-Brown finds a beautiful subtlety in Shylock, a man lashing out as he’s unable to deal with being ostracised but left utterly bereft as his identity is dismantled by an unforgiving society.