APRIL 2008  
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Tim Carroll's inaugural production for the RSC is both interesting and, at times, infuriating. Interesting because of the unusual (in these rightly sensitive post-Holocaust times) reminder of the comedic force of the play, and infuriating because so much of the dialogue and action is inaudible and obscured by conscious decisions of staging. Nevertheless, comedy rules in a play whose programme notes highlight the folk-tale heritage of much of the narrative.

This comic shift in purpose impacts on the balance of performances. Shylock, played with an impressive coolness by Angus Wright, appears far more successful, indeed positively aristocratic, compared with the off-the-peg rough-and-readiness of his Christian merchant adversaries. Not even the Duke of Venice can match the suave and mellifluous sophistication of this Jewish moneylender. Whilst this unexpected alteration allows for a shocking moment of animal blood-lust when Shylock literally mounts the body of his victim and wields his honed knife, in general it suggests a two-dimensionality for a character whose complexity has guaranteed a continued fascination with The Merchant of Venice among twenty-first century audiences.

This also impacts on the scenes in Belmont. Georgina Rich is a feisty, street-wise Portia whose ability to disguise herself so successfully as a lawyer obviously stems form her close study of the male sex. Portia is sensual and sexual, although the design concept of surrounding her with giant icicles and blocks of dangerously unstable ice were in conflict with her stage presence. This was certainly no ice maiden. Lust and knowing desire sit uncomfortably with melting ice-blocks symbolically representing the gold, silver and lead caskets.

Indeed, several flashes of filmic brilliance from designer Laura Hopkins could not outweigh the overall feeling that bright ideas and concepts were being scattered among an unconvincing whole. Dismembered hands stroked the rims of a myriad champagne glasses; equally dismembered bodies delivered an entire scene on an elevated upper stage; most disturbing of all, Lorenzo and Jessica get-down-and-dirty beneath a threatening star-lit sky comprising of razor-sharp shards of mirror which rotate ominously over their delicate bodies.

Coupled with the problems of design, there were times when the onstage acting became muffled and unclear. Even more disturbingly, odd archaic moments of versification began to jolt the ear. Since so much effort seems to have been spent in introducing a contemporary British middle-class mundanity to the play's Venetian setting there seems little point in over-stressing the Elizabethan scansion. After many years attending RSC productions, I found the delivery of words like "complex-shee-on", "prepara-shee-on", "propor-shee-on" and, worst of all, "o-shee-un" (yes, you've guessed it, "ocean") uncomfortable and, worst of all, inconsistent.

Carroll's tenure at the London Globe is obviously reflected in the opening/closing jig and the relentless comic business with the front row of the Courtyard audience. The groundlings might be more sedate in their plush upholstered seats but most members of the audience seemed to enjoy the interaction, if not necessarily those singled out for such unsolicited exposure. It would be very interesting if the Globe experiment was now to impact on future RSC productions, especially with the construction of the Main House thrust stage (a carbon copy of the Courtyard) fully underway. The thrust stage of the RSC might announce the death-knell of proscenium-arch Shakespeare but it is, I suggest, dangerous to go too far the other way and recreate a 'Globe' experiment in such a magnificent acting space.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008