REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

The garden at Hall’s Croft first came to my attention when I learned you could get married, or have a civil partnership in the grounds – it’s a shame you can’t do the same at the Birthplace, but we’re a lot closer to traffic and you’d run the risk of your wedding being papped by 60 ecstatic Japanese tourists. One of the great things about the garden at Hall’s is the potential for outdoor theatre – a couple of weeks ago, some friends and I went to see Theatre Set-Up’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice.

Half an hour before it opened, I was sitting on the steps opposite, staring in fascination as the elderly rich of Stratford (so elderly! So rich!) carted the contents of (what they probably call) their sun lounges, conservatories, drawing rooms and breakfast bars into the green and pleasant land of theatre. There were cloches. There was cutlery. Chairs were de rigeur, and in one party of six septuagenarians, I distinctly saw a snowy tablecloth receive, on platters, two cheeseboards and a quiche.

The sheer stamina on view impressed me. People whom the uncharitable might regard as nearly dead were acting as their own pack mules, deckchair in each hand as they trekked through an Old Town heatwave, determined to live the dream of eating an excellent dinner, while watching mediocre Shakespeare.

Antonio opens the play saying that, in sooth, he knows not why he is so sad, and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser. Generally, the characterization was unfocused and the relationships undefined. I didn’t know why Portia loved Bassanio, or why he reciprocated – Salanio’s claim that Antonio ‘only loves the world for’ Bassanio describes an intensity of emotion that nobody onstage seemed to feel. The most interesting thing about the production was their use of the text. Not so much individual line-readings; in fact, the performance was characterized by inaccuracies; but with the ingenuous system of doubling and cuts. With a cast of only eight actors, it’s a tribute to editorial skill that the only felt losses were Gratiano’s mocking repetitions of ‘a Daniel’ in the court scene, and a few choppings from Nerissa and Jessica.

The production’s heavy cutting of the ‘salads’ (Salanio and Salarino) should be a model for directors – they weren’t missed. My friends and I were divided on the success of the Lorenzo/Shylock doubling. I, personally, was a fan of both performances, but felt the company wasted an opportunity of shedding any light on the (as ever) under-directed Jessica. As Shylock’s daughter, the actress began with startling vitriol against her father, spitting as she resolved to become ‘a Christian, and [a] loving wife’ to the Gentile Lorenzo, only to transform into a sulky madam the second she actually got him. Perhaps the doubling was meant to show Jessica exchanging one identical set of problems for another, but there was no suggestion that the amorous lover was as difficult as the father.

Only one moment in the production really disturbed me, and it was the audience who caused me unease. It’s always nice when a play by Shakespeare can show you the mass of anti-Semitism eating Eton Mess in an audience. At the end of the trial scene, Antonio (still alive, still fully-fleshed) gets his penultimate kick by demanding that his Jewish adversary ‘presently become a Christian’. Most of the audience laughed.

There’s no humour in that line; no context or delivery could make it funny. There had been nothing in the production to suggest that a presentation of Shylock as cartoonish or laughable was what Theatre Set-Up intended. It makes me wonder, though, how often that line gets laughs, and where. Anyone else who’s seen a production of Merchant, did this happen to you? What’s the most shocking or upsetting audience reaction you’ve seen?

My sudden enforced awareness of the Merchant audience reminded me of Kate Woods’s Britgrad paper on Sophonisba (1605). The play was performed at Blackfriars where, for the first time, the lighting conditions of indoor theatre directed an audience’s attention right away from each other, towards the stage. Before that, daylit productions in the playhouses meant that audiences were completely aware of each other. It was a point Iā€™d never really considered before ā€“ funnily enough, my research into theatre spaces really starts with Aphra Behn and discovery spaces. Today, open-air productions are our closest link to that kind of atmosphere, and it made me wonder what other audience are hidden by the comforting darkness of the stalls.

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14 thoughts on “REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

  1. I never normally read reviews (because I tend to find them Dull As), but enjoyed this! So, yay.

    Misc thoughts:
    1. Had I been there. I think we know who would have been packmuling. And IT IS NOT I. *waves fan*

    2. “and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser”

    I lol’d.

    3. Ouch, in re: blatant and horrible British anti-semitism. (It.s always the most upsetting *ism for me ANYWAY, for some reason. And of course, you know. It is Merchant. But that doesn’t mean the audience has to be quite so FULL OF EPIC FAIL.)

    4. I did know about the Blackfriars conditions generally, obv., but had never considered that point about the audience! Most fascinating. I’m sure I read in ‘Sheridan Studies’ that by the Garrick era the audience were [once again?] mutually aware? (Proliferating question marks = an interest in but not a knowledge of stage history.) IF that is actually true, then I wonder when it, um, changed back.

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    • I’m now starting to wonder about the point in the paper – I was talking to a friend the other day who made very sensible points such as

      1) How does this fit with the see-and-be-seen aspect of Restoration theatre?
      2) If it was dark, how did they get the audience IN, etc

      I wonder too. Hmmm….

      Glad you liked the review! I think the audience definitely wouldn’t have considered themselves anti-Semitic, but their response to Shylock’s situation as primarily funny definitely made it an anti-Semitic moment, for me and for the people I was with.

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  2. What a great review – just promise me you’ll never blog on anything I’m ever in or direct!

    Interesting comment in indoor lighting at Blackfriars but I’m not sure the covered auditorium means the lighting inside it was focussed on the stage. Dimmable gas lighting didn’t arrive until 1820 and I thought Andre Antoine invented the convention of a darkened auditorium and brightly lit stage as part of the realist movement along with three dimensional sets and the invisible fourth wall around 1880?

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    • Andrew! Hello. You can see Chloe’s made similar points above. This is not at all my area of research, but it IS interesting. I may try and see if I can track Kate Woods down and ask this directly.

      Blackfriars was key to the introduction of artificial lighting, but beyond that I can’t really speak on my own authority.

      — aha, okay, the V&A says auditoria were brightly lit until the nineteenth century. Interesting.

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  3. I am in the cast for this production, but- believe it or not- this isn’t going to be a rant full of bitter resentment for the fact that- heaven forfend!- someone didn’t enjoy the show. You can’t please all the people all the time, each person will have their own view on any performance (I wouldn’t have it any other way) and since your review is eloquent and backed up by the fact that you seem know what you’re talking about, I totally respect your opinion (however you did make one error, as we are a cast of seven, not eight. A testament to our skills as multi-role playing actors perhaps?).

    I just wanted to weigh in with my view on the “anti-semetic audience” debate. Having performed the play all over the country, as well as in Belgium and Holland, both indoors and outdoors with the audience sometimes in full view and sometimes cloaked in darkness, I can confirm that ‘he presently become a Christian’, as well as many of the other shocking moments in the trial scene, often get laughs. However, I reject the notion that this reveals a dark, nasty streak in the audience. The laughs coming from the audience at those points are distinctly different from when they laugh at, say, Launcelot Gobbo’s clowning or the couples’ bickering at the climax of the play. I believe that this is because nervous laughter is a common reaction to a shocking moment in a play, simple as that. It is a release of tension, and that particular moment is also often greeted with genuine gasps of shock, and sometimes even total silence. Different people have different reactions to moments of tension or shock, and that reaction is often laughter. It is instinctive, an emotive response that bypasses thought and deep-seated prejudice, something that just comes out, and is only thought about consciously after it has happened.

    It is one of the many delights of live theatre that you never know how an audience will react, and it is a constant pleasure to see it from the stage. It keeps it fresh for us, and all that we can hope for as actors is that it keeps it fresh for the audience also, and that (the majority, at least) of audiences enjoy the show!

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    • Hi – thank you so much for responding!

      I can follow your reasoning in everything you say – and thanks for the correction on numbers of actors; I must have been counting your harpist by mistake.

      I do think that a certain section of the audience thought about that moment as it happened, because the laughing response was at such variance with what they felt. I think the laughed response indicates that the audience see Shylock, at that moment, as less than human, or the situation as unreal. One of the people I was with was Jewish, and although she is (to say the least) extremely aware of the cultural context of the play; of the gulf between normative Christian views of Judaism then, and views now; and doesn’t feel much personal identification with Shylock, she found it both surprising and hurtful that the audience laughed.

      I don’t think that the production leads us to laugh at Shylock’s conversion, and I don’t think the production is at all anti-Semitic (you know it’s not, obviously; I just wanted to make clear my own views); I also thought that Shylock’s Laban-speech was handled better than in some other productions I’ve seen. It can be difficult to follow, as it’s about the only time Shylock’s in danger of losing the audience’s attention. Equally, Lancelot Gobbo’s monologue can drag horribly and I thought that you (if I’m correct) kept the pace very well there.

      Again, thanks very much for commenting!

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  4. I was one of the “nearly dead” there that day – the harpist, (sorry about the sun beating down on the harp and putting it out of tune), – and at 72 years old obviously in your category of ancients (although I finance the company from my pension , tour with it, often taking acting roles – naturally of old frumps- and do all its administration). As I knew most of the people in the audience I have not been able to identify some of those categories you revile so vigorously, the “so rich” of Stratford for example. Some elderly, certainly, (but is that a crime in your young eyes?), but rich? There were present the families of three of the actors, academics from the Shakespeare Institute and Warwick University, retired school teachers, members of The Shakespeare Society, and, sporting a table with a “snowy cloth”, some chefs from Leicester , the latter most welcome as they supplied the cast with delicious food at the end of the performance.

    Have you never been to outdoor Shakespeare performances before? It is a very common genre in this country and usually accompanied by picnics, so much so that I never allow stage blood to be used in the productions lest it mar the appetites of the munching audience.

    We “nearly dead” reject your patronising attitude to us, marvelling at our ability to do things for ourselves such as carry chairs and picnics. Be prepared for more horror of us in the future as the statistics demonstrate that we are an increasing proportion of the population. You may even find yourself to have joined our ranks one day, enjoying a pleasant munch and a play on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Hope so!

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  5. People laugh at terrible things. Like Michael McIntyre. More relevantly, Theatre Set-Up’s production was excellent touring theatre. Yes I’ve seen it and no, I don’t have anything to do with the company. Your review is much less of an achievement. No one ever built a statue to a critic, etc. But if they do I’m sure you wouldn’t like it anyway.

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  6. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to enjoy it, as well; seeing enjoyable theatre is much better than feeling you’ve wasted your time and money.

    I do quite like the statues and monuments to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire &c (I imagine there’s also a statue to Diderot somewhere – I wonder if Yale will commission a bust/statue of Bloom?), as it happens.

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