‘Merchant’ gives outrageous theatricality and bravura performance

Gordon Jones
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Greg Malone wooed the audience as Shylock, taking every opportunity to deliver a barnstorming performance, and with an occasional irreverent gesture that Shakespeare may or may not have approved. — Photo by Crystal O’Neil

Last year was the inaugural season of Shakespeare in Cupids, performed in a scaled-down, Elizabethan-style amphitheatre of wood and canvas, with thrust stage, pit for venturesome groundlings, and raked seating on benches for more sedate citizens. It is an all-weather venue, although you might not relish being a groundling in the rain.

In 2010 they presented an intriguing, three-person production of “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring Andy Jones as Bottom. This summer the two plays on offer are “Henry IV, Part 1,” which opens in August, and “The Merchant of Venice,” which is now up and running.

First performed in the last months of 1596, the play is described on the title-page of the 1600 quarto as “The Most Excellent History of The Merchant of Venice. With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the Said Merchant in Cutting a Just Pound of his Flesh and the Obtaining of Portia by the Choice of Three Chests.” That just about says it all. But the proof of the pudding is in the performance.

The fast-moving show starts with a festive bang: three synchronised drummers accompany dancers in colourful costume and elaborate masks. They are celebrating carnival in Venice, the only dissonant elements being black-clad, unfestive Shylock, followed by grey-clad, melancholic Antonio. The festive dimension is maintained throughout by deployment of flamboyant, masked servants and scene-changers.

To underwrite the courtship expenses of a profligate young protege, merchant Antonio borrows money from a despised Jewish money-lender, entering into a “merry bond” whereby he guarantees the loan with forfeit of a pound of his own flesh, if he is unable to repay by the due date.

His friend, Bassanio, duly wins the hand of the beautiful and wealthy Portia, but, because of mercantile setbacks, Antonio is insolvent when repayment of the loan is due. Shylock insists on the penalty. Accordingly, the heroine travels to Venice, disguised as a male lawyer, thwarts Shylock, saves Antonio’s life, and returns to femininity and to Belmont, where she shows her husband and his merchant-friend who it is that wears the trousers in this marriage.

The show is mounted with a cast of nine, with only two roles being singly cast, Greg Malone’s Shylock and Bridget Wareham’s Portia, other actors assuming up to four parts. Performance is exemplary from performers in supporting roles, as well as from the big guns.

Grizzled Paul Rowe is a sophisticated, slightly quizzical Antonio in the play’s title-role. Initially the highly respected and deferred-to doyen of commercial Venice, he is reduced to the status of victim and scapegoat, “the tainted wether of the flock.” Rowe handles both states of the character with aplomb. He also covers the minor role of Shylock’s co-religious confidant, Tubal.

Antonio’s saviour — though his rival for the attention of Bassanio — is Portia.

Bridget Wareham is a scintillating and enchanting Portia, but, nevertheless, fully in control — a Portia with a glint of steel in her character. She smoothly shifts gear, persona and gender to act as expert male jurist and casuist in the trial scene. She is more than a match for the Bible-citing Shylock. Wareham is ably supported in her counterfeit function as lawyer and in her make-believe role as cheated-on wife by Vic Wells-Smith in the part of her pert companion and servant, Nerissa. The Portia-Nerissa twosome doesn’t get much better than this.

Wells-Smith also plays Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who elopes with the family jewels and with as many of Shylock’s ducats as she can lay her hands on (much to the joy of her  husband-to-be, Lorenzo, who boasts that the theft proves her “a Gentile and no Jew”).

Scott Yetman handles the part of Bassanio’s red-neck, jew-baiting sidekick, Gratiano, who “speaks an infinite deal of nothing more than any man in all Venice.” Yetman also takes on the abbreviated clown role of Launcelot Gobbo, together with two bit parts as an unnamed gentleman and a jailer. Versatile Edmund Stapleton does Lorenzo and the Duke (who presides over the trial), while Liam Dawson and Brittany Pack play various servants and messengers. All these principals and supporters are crystal clear in delivery and convincing in representation.

While there are threats and tensions in the play, it is, after all, a comedy.

This is the funniest, most laughter-inducing “Merchant” that I have seen, the comic torque being generated principally by the two comedic pistons of the production, Greg Malone in the role of Shylock and Edouard Fontaine tripling in the roles of all three of Portia’s suitors. Has this ever been done before a friend wondered?

Fontaine is a gleeful, bombastic, self-confident Prince of Morocco. He is also a more restrained, if prouder and more self-regarding Prince of Arragon. And he is, most importantly, Bassanio, who gets the casket choice right and explodes into giddy celebration.

Gaunt, dark-eyed and censorious, Malone captures the rhythms, idioms and gesticulations of Jewish speech, creating a glorious, darkly comic stage-villain, like Iago or Richard III, who draws us irresistibly into his paranoid confidence, almost making us co-conspirators. However, a consequence of this directorial choice is that lines and situations are invariably played for laughs, so that glimpses of Shylock’s humanity are elided. In one of the most potentially poignant lines in the play, he is told by Jubal that Jessica has bought a pet monkey with the turquoise ring that his dead wife gave to him before they were married. Shylock’s response is, “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Is this really best delivered for comic effect?

Similarly, after the monstrous stipulation in the final judgement that Shylock must convert to Christianity (cleverly guyed by Gratiano’s snatching Shylock’s always-worn, Jewish skull cap), he acquiesces in three simple words, “I am content.” Defiant or crushed?

In this intimate, in-the-round venue, wherever you sit, you are close to the action. Malone and Fontaine seize this opportunity by the throat, exploiting intimacy to the full — wooing, cajoling, confiding, and riveting the audience with eye contact.

Both deliver barn-storming performances, delighting the audience with outrageous theatricality and bravura performance, punctuated by interjections, chuckles, grimaces, and gestures that squeeze every ounce of comedy out of dialogue and action — sometimes, it must be confessed, more than Shakespeare ever put in. Did they ever go over the top? You bet! But the substantial, opening-day audience was eating out of their hands. How can you not feed them?

The appreciative audience rose to its collective feet to applaud the curtain call, as I am sure will be the case for each and every performance.

Directed by guest director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey, with evocative costume design by Peggy Hogan, “The Merchant of Venice” continues its run on the Indeavour Stage in Cupids until August 28. Some performances start at 1 p.m., some at 6 p.m. So check your schedules and tickets carefully.

Including one intermission, the running time of the opening show was 15 minutes over two hours.

Geographic location: Venice, Cupids, Belmont Morocco

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