The Merchant of Venice

"Creation Theatre Company."


A review by Julia Gasper 23 July 2012

  The summer has finally started and you can go to an outdoor production of Shakespeare without getting drenched by rain, so GET UP AND GO because Creation Theatre Company’s new production of The Merchant of Venice is well worth it.

Directed by Nathalie Abrahami, this production has strong performances in all the leading roles and is full of fun and vitality as well as insight. It entertains while also being thought-provoking. By setting it in the 1930s, the fascist era, it adds an extra dimension of seriousness to the tale of hatred and revenge between Gentile and Jew. And at one point, when Lorenzo and Jessica, the eloping pair, turn up together at Belmont, there seems to be a visual allusion to Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film La Vita è Bella, about a Jewish couple in Mussolini’s Italy being taken to a concentration camp.

However, these touches are subtle and never heavy-handed and there is plenty of fun and entertainment too. The moment when the cast used a couple of packing cases and a broom to represent a gondola was delightful. At first sight, the style of the production is drab - crates and boxes everywhere remind us that Venice is a place of business, whose wealth is based on trade, and we have come in through the tradesman’s entrance. Then the boxes are used in many imaginative ways that surprise and amuse us, such as when Portia (the charming Leila Crerar) is describing the three young suitors from England, France and Germany who are plaguing her, and their heads pop up out of boxes like faces on a television, each one a ludicrous national stereotype. When Bassanio (excellently played bv James Wooldridge) chooses between the caskets, they stand on boxes with cargo labels. When Antonio (Scott Brooksbank) is arraigned in court, he is shackled between two piles of crates with arms outstretched to resemble a crucifixion.

The music and occasional dances (by Alex Silverman) are done in a light-hearted parodic, jazzy style that works really well with the general mood and background. Lancelot (whose second name Gobbo should surely be pronounced with a hard G) plays a banjo and Nerissa and Jessica both sing very well and stylishly. The fact that Gratiano is here cast as black (Gabriel Fleary, playing up the cheeky, laddish elements of the role) and Nerissa white (Louise Callaghan, confident and jolly) helps to counter-balance the impression that the play could be racist.
Jonathan Oliver makes a splendid and different Shylock, shrewd, dignified and sober, with no touch of any foreign accent or mannerism. When the court proclaims him an “alien” we feel genuinely surprised. I would only change one detail of his performance, when he delivers the terrible lines about wishing his daughter were dead at his feet and the stolen diamond in her ear: this surely should be shouted with rage as nobody could say of think such a thing calmly. He should be momentarily carried away and then want to take back what he said.

If you have been hesitating to go to an outdoor production because of this year’s appalling weather, come along now. The conditions are perfect. St Swithun’s Day has passed, it was dry, and the forecast is for some really pleasant summery evenings ahead. The evening I was there the traffic noise was not really a problem. There are cushions provided to make the audience comfortable and the gardens at the Said Business School are a nice place to enjoy a drink before the performance or during the interval. You could end the evening by going out for an Italian meal at one of the many nearby restaurants and imagining you are sitting on the Giudecca at Venice gazing out across the ships and domes. We went for a drink on the terrace at Freud’s café and it was full of chattering Italian students, modern Lorenzos and Jessicas. All a great way to spend a summer’s night.


Julia Gasper.
 Box Office Tel. 01865.766266.
 1st Aerials Oxford




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