reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 29 August
Gender-, age- and colour-blind casting is an excellent thing. In theory. In practice it can be incredibly distracting unless made logical by the drama itself. The three comedies which Brendan O’Hea has directed for Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour this summer use only eight actors, most of whom double or treble rôles.
Designer Andrew D Edwards doesn’t really clarify anything with his costumes; the set is a stark matter of two-level boarding with metal supports. The cast play and sing the Bill Barclay’s music in the course of the action and to top and tail the show.
Shylock is the dominant character in The Merchant of Venice. Sarah Finigan offers both the man’s bitterness as a Venetian second-class resident and his certainty of his own righteousness as a Jew, a family man and a money-lender. She speaks the lines admirably with a full sense of what they mean.
That is also true of Russell Layton’s Antonio, brooding as much on possible sexual frustration as for the vulnerability of his trading ships. Rhianna McGreevy as Nerissa, Steffan Cennydd as Lorenzo, the Prince of Aragon and the Doge and Jacqueline Phillips’s Portia are also good.
It’s a play which, however well you think you know it and have experienced a variety of productions, should concentrate the audience’s attention on its tangle of themes. Racial stereotyping is certainly one; whether the power which money brings is inhibiting or a force for good/evil is another.
Concentrating on this is difficult when you are distracted by a young woman playing a middle-aged man or an imbalance of age with two of the wooing couples. That androgynous costuming doesn’t help. You can parallel how plays toured in the late 16th century, but we see with 21st century eyes and listen with 21st century ears.
Simplicity of staging should allow an audience to focus directly on the play. As with all such things, simplicity is a transparent and fragile shield. What is revealed is all-important. For me, this production distracted just as much as an overly elaborate or time-shifted one.
Three and a half-star rating.
The Merchant of Venice plays in repertoire with The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 1 September. There are matinées on 30 August and 1 September.