The Merchant of Venice is a rather dangerous and difficult play to stage. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, it’s been the most controversial in recent times given its anti-semitism (although that’s probably not the most fitting label), and it challenges the misguided notion that people throw around that Shakespeare’s work is entirely universal. Like any writer, he was influenced by all that was happening during his lifetime (and all that had gone before), and that certainly doesn’t diminish his impact.
Without an excellent director the balance can be easily thrown off and the audience will end up wondering if certain attitudes or characters are being endorsed. Thankfully, Sport for Jove has managed to pull in Richard Cottrell who, rather than presenting a particular “take” on the toughest issues at the play’s core, digs into the characters’ objectives and relationships, then allows the text to speak for itself.
We still hear the anti-semitic material in the script, deployed against Shylock in both casual and aggressive ways, Shylock still carries out his villainous acts, and he’s still uncompromising and refuses to hear pleas for mercy. But the audience sees hints of just how severely and consistently he has been persecuted by the other characters.
It’s not that Cottrell presents Shylock in a “sympathetic” light, it’s that he ploughs the full depth of the character, and his relationships with those around him, to reveal something truthful. Cottrell directs all his characters without judgement, which puts that responsibility in the hands of the audience.
But this is a production which is defined by its levity and sense of fun. An art deco design by Anna Gardiner (and an absolutely gorgeous parquet floor by Lucilla Smith), provides a sense of glamour and Gatsby-esque joy, even if there are darker elements at play. It does align the setting with the rise of Nazi Germany, but Cottrell never draws parallels too explicitly, even when Shylock is forced to renounce Judaism.
Sport for Jove always attracts the finest actors, and this cast of 13 is led by the remarkable John Turnbull as Shylock. It’s an endearing performance, and you can almost end up on Shylock’s side as he battles against every other character on stage, who all just want to see him ruined.
Lizzie Schebesta’s Portia is full of intelligence and grace, and is played for subtle laughs against some of the broader performances on the stage, such as Aaron Tsindos’ delightful turn as the Prince of Morocco, Michael Cullen’s naively energetic Lanelot, and Damien Strouthos’ boyish Gratiano. There’s also excellent work from James Lugton as Antonio, the merchant at the centre of the show, and Erica Lovell as Nerissa.
There are plenty of big laughs, and that’s not always something which arises so naturally from Shakespeare’s texts when performed for today’s audiences. There’s expert attention to the detail in the language which means the play’s almost three hour running time flies by.