Friday 20 February 2009

Shakespeare Goes Shawshank: Propeller's Merchant of Venice

An all-male Merchant of Venice set in a prison doesn’t sound particularly promising. But Ed Hall’s ever-brilliant Propeller company pulls it off in a spectacular way in this production, discovering all kinds of fresh material in a play that many think has more than had its day. On Hall’s oddly effective set - more prison of the mind than literal penitentiary - the play becomes a series of variations on the theme of entrapment, with all the characters - Christian and Jew, male and female alike - occupying their own cells at various times: due to race, religion, and, most especially perhaps, love. Kelsey Brookfield’s Portia is the most sympathetic rendering of the character I’ve ever seen, and I also loved Chris Myles’s sublimely naughty Nerissa (the flamenco dance!), John Dougall’s wryly sinister Launcelot Gobbo, Jon Trenchard’s fearful Jessica (exchanging one oppressor for another in the shape of Lorenzo; the “mark the music” scene is superbly done), Bob Barrett making Antonio into something more interesting than a masochistic whinger, and Jack Tarlton creating a memorable Bassanio of bratty opportunism, sexual manipulation and, eventually, regret. Not entirely sure about Richard Clothier’s Shylock, and an added eye-gouging scene, which seems to have wandered in from King Lear, is a silly shock tactic. But the cast work beautifully together as ever and the production develops its own compelling atmosphere as Christian hymns become taunting dirges and prison doors clang. It’s not the most audience-interactive of Propeller’s shows (though thank you, Chris Myles, for chucking Portia’s shawl right in my face on your entrance!), but it’s full of detail, energy and intelligence and is sharply attuned to the play’s shifts in power. A revelation.

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