Review: Brilliant direction and gifted acting in dark Shakespeare adaptation

The Merchant of Venice by Playbox Theatre’s Shakespeare Young Company, the Dream Factory, Warwick. On until March 29. Box office: 419555.

The Merchant of Venice remains one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Is it an anti-Semitic play, or is it a play about anti-Semitism? Is Shylock’s insistence on a pound of flesh in lieu of a debt his due, or is it society’s right to cast aspersion on a man who would take the letter of the law beyond its moral compass? If he does wrong, is he not also wronged?

Mary King’s adaptation of the play contains some dark and deeply troubling twists. Here, the Christians are as devilish as the Jew is claimed to be. But they are men in grey suits, whose riches are gained at the expense of the poor, usually in far off countries. The women are, on the whole, sweeter.

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In this version, Antonio is played as Antonia (Lucy Doyle), a twist which allows the performance to introduce a very dark and original interpretation at the end. It is a brilliant stroke of direction, and it confirms the impression that this is a deeply cynical production about a deeply cynical world.

Though there is virtue, especially in Laura Woodhouse’s beautiful performance as Portia, there is much vice too, often masquerading as virtue. Tom Briggs plays Shylock as a deeply troubled man, hurt by the iniquities heaped upon him and hungry for revenge.

Martha Markham shows a gift for knockabout comedy as Launcelot the clown.

But it is the faceless and the two-faced ones we have to watch out for, for theirs is the earth and all that’s in it.

Nick Le Mesurier

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