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The Jack Studio Theatre: The Merchant of Venice

| Culture, Hidden London, Theatre, Uncategorized | 25/11/2013

Someday My Prince Will Go
Someday My Prince Will Go: Alexander Shenton and Rosemary Lippard.

Taking a scalpel to The Bard; re-staging ‘The Merchant’ as an ensemble piece in a fifty-seat studio theatre? Good idea? Or a worry? With my comfy points-of-reference severed, I confess I’m a little lost. The final scenes removed affect the pagination of the court-room although the literary recapitulation at close is, concededly, clever. The Duke (Tracey Pickup) seems to have undergone gender-realignment if remaining in complete control as do, admirably, the rest of the cast. The classic Shakespearian trick of disguise is re-represented by the macabre clown-mask (a scorching image unfathomably unavailable for publication) or replaced by the confusion of the same actor portraying both the Prince and Bassanio. Initially an inept swarthy heir to a Mafia dynasty, he’s reborn as slightly over-earnest but it suits. Golden boy Alexander Shenton radiates a commendable confidence.

So, this is not simply Shakespeare in a different setting. And even that seems ambiguous, as much as the 1980s revival is, the Laura-Ashley-ish costumes reminiscent of early Lady Di. Then again there’s a definite 1930s savoir-faire, a knowing fortitude paralleled with contemporary recession and depression. You don’t reinvent an era without some aspect of what’s current. The stage – or rather the strange and cobbled-together table – is set with equally strange swoopy music morphed into idiotic synth-beats, alongside balletic tableaux and live vocalisation. Like being stuck in an Adam Ant video. Not that I’m complaining, returned to another first-rate production at The Jack.

‘The Merchant’ though maligned for anti-Semitism, as with the gender-bias in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, is not so single-minded and faces the prejudice head on. This production does nothing but reinforce that – if, as with any articulate and beautiful creation, it (nearly) gets away with murder. For example, Rosemary Lippard as Portia slips effortlessly into a role proving as stridently and presently feminist as to counter-balance any critic of ‘The Shrew’. Lippard is worldly-wise not sour in a gratifyingly amusing performance. Alexa Reed as Nerissa makes a great match in their neatly focused two-hander, pleasingly setting-up the premise and promise of the play. A joy to hear Shakespeare so fluently orated, besides the total relief that his eternal language remains intact and impactful.

Merchant of Venice

Stephen McNeice, not shy of the real thing.

Despite of or because of its anti-Semitism it all belongs to Shylock and his provocative, confrontational dialogue. Stephen McNeice inhabits the protagonist’s mental cage with knowing wilfulness, never pitiful. A crime not to name all performers who each deserve their pound of praise; Joe Mott as Launcelot one gleaming turn of this highly-polished company; I’m very impressed with the superb work of these young and dedicated thespians. The show is through-choreographed with equal precision (I presume by director Ricky Dukes, no choreographer named) to a terrific sound-scape by Neil McKeown.

On reaching Act Three: Scene Two (if that’s where it’s at) it suddenly stills. Bassanio’s speech “There is no vice so simple but assumes/Some mark of virtue on his outward parts…” is incredibly relevant to the divisiveness of our age. Ricky Dukes has pruned the roses well. The stillness of the ‘second half’ accommodates its gravity, appropriating excellent contrast with the Kemp-ish and campish entrées. Richardson infamously quipped that “Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing…” and this troupe have perfected that art: pertinent on a damp November evening how silent the full house fell. The staggering court scene you don’t want to end – and want to end. The table transmutes to a sickeningly bleak mortuary slab, achieving appalling closure, in darkest splendour, suffocatingly tense. The scandal in a tabloid, the ghastly looking-glass of human nature.

Showing until December 7, 2013

The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Lazarus Theatre Company

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