'Charged and brilliantly uncomfortable' - Falstaff Society's Merchant of Venice

Hannah Green reviews Falstaff Society's impressively fresh and politically relevant performance.

Shakespeare is always going to be challenging. Factor in the The Merchant of Venice's length and complexity, its interweaving plots, cross dressing and romantic intrigues and you're left with a task that's far from simple. However, this Falstaff Society production, brilliantly directed by Hope White, brings out the play's homoerotic undertones, the resounding sadness of unhappy marriages and damaging racial prejudices. For a comedy, this is some hard hitting stuff, but the talent of the actors and the nuance of the direction makes for a charged and brilliantly uncomfortable evening.

'it throws into sharp relief just how relatively little we have progressed as a society'

The reasoning behind the 1950s theme for this production is not completely clear - however, the treatment of women and Jewish people and the necessity of clandestine relationships between two men in fits disturbingly well into this time period, one not so very far from our own. It throws into sharp relief just how relatively little we have progressed as a society, and Shakespeare’s very human rendering of these characters, brought to life and given new meaning by this production, is more sympathetic and touching than we might expect. Esther Bancroft’s set was simple but versatile, and although set changes could be cumbersome at times (causing the first act to drag a little with its series of blackouts and snippets of music), it allowed the acting to shine through.

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The quality of the acting varies, with some absolutely stand-out performances. With the production so focused on Portia, Delilah Acworth plays this complex role with strength and humour, though the character’s melancholy is never far from the surface. Her delicate handling of her infatuation with Bassanio and the dawning realization of the truth of his affections contrasts brilliantly with her commanding courtroom presence. The friendship between Portia and her maid is touchingly portrayed, with Mingma Hughes playing a vivacious Nerissa. Hughes, as well as Alfie Brunt’s perfectly timed Gratiano, brings a touch of light and freshness to a production that otherwise delves deeper and darker than the average Shakespearean romp.

'this production, though ambitious, delivers a powerful punch'

Kieron Boon gives a thoughtful and humane performance of the much maligned Shylock - his passionate indictments of anti-Semitic abuse and courtroom monologue hit hard, especially considering the recent political climate. One has to consider the ethics of staging such a play as this, with its grating stereotype of 'the tight-fisted Jew', as Shylock’s race and heritage are leveled against him again and again. His forced conversion to Christianity is clearly uncomfortable, bringing questions of censorship and sensitivities to the fore.

How far can we cut out the lines that offend us now, and how far are we able to view the play purely in its historical context? Another aspect which this production explores is the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, which Joe Davidson and Charlie Wright render delicately. A romantic relationship is implied but never made explicit, though the on-stage chemistry between the two is tangible.

'passionate indictments of anti-Semitic abuse and courtroom monologue hit hard, especially considering the recent political climate'

This production, though ambitious, delivers a powerful punch. Sold out for both performances, it shows us just how relevant and fresh Shakespeare can be, with impressive performances and careful direction.


(Featured image: Unsplash / Ricardo Gomez Angel)

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