Review: The Merchant of Venice
Image: Cockpit Theatre
Antonio - Michael Luke Walsh
Balthasar/ Duke of Venice - Geraldine Brennan
Bassanio - Jonathan McGarrity
Gratiano - Matthew Williams
Jessica - Nell Bradbury
Launcelot - Daniel Murphy
Lorenzo/ Prince of Aragon - Alec Bennie
Nerrissa - Eugenia Low
Portia - Charlotte Gallagher
Prince of Morocco - Odera Ndujiuba
Salanio - Dewi Hughes
Salarino - Mary-Ann Cafferkey
Shylocke - Alexandra Kataigida
Stephano/ Tubal - Luca Kocsmárszky
All that glisters is not gold.
Antonio will do anything for Bassanio.
Bassanio will do anything to win Portia and her wealth.
Shylock has the means and mind to take revenge on Antonio.
Can love possibly defeat hate, when the hate has grown from love?
The performers have no rehearsals, no idea of the plot, an audience watching and nowhere to hide.
With only the guidance of their lines, the performers create the cue-scripted performance as it is performed.
Watch the actors step into the unknown and gamble with every moment of the play.
The last time I saw theatre company Shakescene Shakespeare at The Cockpit Theatre they were tackling The Tempest in the same manner as The Bard himself would have used back in his day, and now they're using the same technique with his story of merchants and money-lending.
Even non-actors are familiar with the basic modern approach to staging a play.
First you choose the actors you want to play the parts, then you corral them in a room together with a director and they work-out what moves they'll make and where the entrances and exits will be, and all that kind of thing - a detailed process that can take days or even weeks.
And, of course, the actors have to take away a copy of the complete script and learn their own lines as well as learn the points in the dialogue which cue them to go on stage.
Not so, though, in the days of Shakespeare - printing was still too expensive to hand-out complete copies of the script and, more importantly, if the actors had been given a copy they would be more than likely to take it to another theatre and flog it as their own work.
So each actor was only given the words they had to speak, plus the last few words of theur cue lines.
Moreover, rehearsals were non-existent - the first time an actor would see the other actors and deliver their lines would be when the play was performed.
This is the approach that Shakescene Shakespeare adopt here, providing a genuine experience as Shakespearian audiences and actors would have known.
Sometimes, actors do miss their cues when they forget their lines or who should be speaking next - and that, of course, is part of the attraction and fun of the format.
But they can ask for a prompt when necessary from the 'book holder' who has a copy of the script and can shout out the next line when necessary.
And that can provide added humour depending on the line which is being asked for - on one occasion the line was "Marry, well-remembered", which seemed a little too much of a coincidence, perhaps!
In the modern setting of course, many of the actors already know the play - which would not have been the case back in Shakespeare's day when he had just written a brand new work.
In those days, the performances would have been, I suspect, rather more raw and unpolished than we see in this version of The Merchant of Venice where many of the actors have probably been in a production of this play at one time or another.
The interruptions - when lines have to be called for - might seem to corrupt, or even destroy the flow of the action and story.
Surprisingly, though, that isn't the case - the audience quickly come to understand the process and seem perfectly content to laugh at the interruptions and then settle back into even the most poignant aspects of the story with relative ease.
And this is a story that everyone can understand and appreciate for its many still-relevant themes, with a kind of thriller of a plot that hinges on money-lender Shylock who will not be dissuaded from getting his 'pound of flesh' when a debt can't be repaid.
There's no director to credit here - though the company's artistic director, Lizzie Conrad Hughes, does a splendid job of introducing the show in modern verse and prompting lines in a loud, clear voice.
There's also some splendid acting on offer here.
Alexandra Kataigida's determined, unswayable Shylock harbours an ingrained bitterness that is almost palpable, but she also provides considerable poignancy too when she realises she has lost her court battle and much of her wealth.
I also enjoyed Jonathan McGarrity's fine Bassanio, the guilt-ridden instigator of the debt which leaves his loyal friend Antonio facing a truly horrible death.
But there's admirable support all round here from a substantial cast who manage to maintain the momentum in spite of occasional memory lapses and who seem comfortable with the challenge they face and not in the least intimidated by it.
Less impressive and extremely irritating was the presence of a photographer incessantly taking photos during the entire performance employing a camera with an audible click - an indefensible production decision that, sadly, showed little regard or respect for either the audience or the actors.
In comparison with The Tempest which I saw earlier this year, the interruptions for lines seemed rather fewer here, and when lines were required they didn't seem to affect the other actors quite so much.
But I suspect that's as much down to luck as anything and not actually a criticism of the previous cast - after all, this is a tough and unforgiving way of working.
I doubt that the dance at the end of the play was orchestrated by cue script since it involves too many complicated moves - but we can forgive this brave company on that score.
And it does require considerable bravery for modern actors to expose themselves to what is a difficult and unusual process for them - and that, of course, should make us also admire the actors of Shakespeare's times who were highly skilled in this format of play-making.
If you've never seen The Merchant of Venice, then this is an absorbing version to watch with the added bonus of experiencing the play as Shakespeare would have produced it.
Well worth seeing.
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