Review: The Merchant of Venice, Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company

BassanioAntonioladsOver the last two years of Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company plays I have come to expect really great, rather loud, somewhat casually misogynistic theatre. So, the essence of what Shakespeare does really well himself. The theatre lover in me was pretty excited for this year’s production of The Merchant of Venice, the feminist saw a faint glimmer of hope in the fact that the director is a woman. Both were disappointed. 

I will preface this review by saying that this was the first night I saw and the actors were clearly still finding their footing; also I had very high expectations having come at this with last year’s rather wonderful production of The Tempest in mind.

The Merchant of Venice, for those of you who don’t know, is a hilariously strange story about a man who stands his own flesh as collateral for a loan for his lover so said lover can pretend to be rich so he can woo a really rich lady who has a penchant for cross-dressing. The man takes this gamble because he has ships coming in, presumably full of lots of expensive things and, you know, in the 16th century nothing ever goes wrong with placing your trust in ships. What makes this to a degree one of Shakespeare’s ‘problematic’ plays is the character of Shylock who offers the loan (the one with the flesh collateral); Shylock is Jewish and subjected to bigotry throughout.

This year’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Rae Glasman, has been set in the lead up to WWII, I’m assuming as an attempted apology for the blatant anti-Semitism. However, this shoe-horning in of a time-period only through the costumes and a radio playing slightly inaudible 1930s radio broadcasts, quite simply, does not work.

I also got the distinct impression that this discomfort with the anti-Semitism was responsible for some of the most confusing direction in the play, in the weirdly played out romance between Lorenzo and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. I read this romance as just that, a romance. However, the performance of Rory McIvor as Lorenzo and the worryingly young-looking Kirsty Findlay as Jessica for some reason turned it into a rather exploitative storyline which gave me the creeps (falling into the classic ‘show a female character being exploited and abused and that’s feminist, right?’ trap).

The thing is, Glasman didn’t need to worry about the anti-Semitism, she did quite enough to counter that by casting the absolutely wonderful Joe Shaw in the role of Shylock. Shylock has the lines, and Shaw has the talent to make this part utterly engaged and sympathetic, even to the point that I was on his side as he tried to stab the rather feeble Antonio (played with subtle niceties by Pedro Leandro) in the chest at the end.

In one way the EUSC has always managed to disappoint, and that is with its consistent need to treat men as the story and women as the decoration to that story. It’s true that Coriolanus, The Tempest and to an extent The Merchant of Venice are all boys clubs, but that’s just the point. The creators chose the plays to make, they chose to not try a gender swap or even cast women in the roles of powerful parts like Coriolanus or Prospero. It is always a choice. And in this matter The Merchant of Venice is a very fair inheritance; I got the impression that for the people who made this play, there is nothing so impressive as having a cock.

And in fact it’s the all boys club that makes this play tiresome. The gaggle of boys who seem to have been cast, not for their acting capacity but for their broad(ish) shoulders, square jaws and posh voices, swagger about the stage as if it is their inheritance to have people look at them.

The characters of the maids with their pitiful voices and slightly tentative attempts at cockney accents are irritatingly used. The two motifs of the princes looking into the three caskets – here held by the three maids – are both played out as sexually aggressive towards the women which pissed me off no end. In a world in which one in three women can expect to be sexually assaulted in their lives I do not find it funny to create not one but two comic scenes about men, uninvited, touching, groping and generally harassing the female body. Not to mention the fact that I don’t think the powerful character of Portia would ever allow a man to touch her maids uninvited, let alone her own body.

Portia was played rather confusingly by Isobel Moulder and I wasn’t sure to what degree this was due to her still finding her footing in the first performance, unhelped by the fact that her first costume, a completely unnecessary neglige, transformed her into a pair of legs. In the first half she was whiny, passive and irritating, in the second she was strong, funny and self-determining. Particularly the first half of this performance was wide of the mark of how much potential the play allows to create a really kick-ass woman.

The only woman who seemed to completely transcend the ‘gender’ of the role was Chaz Watson (in part because she was playing a man/boy) as Lucy (or Launcelot) whose hilarious little inserts made for the funniest and certainly the most energetic parts of the play, despite her rather baffling ‘little-girl’ costume. Watson was consistently funny in the classic fool part, although the cutting of her comic partner made this role a rather lonely out of place one at times.

I was frustrated throughout this performance as it felt like so many missed opportunities. The end did pick up and I particularly enjoyed the final act where the actors were clearly having a lot of fun with the homoerotic undertones. In terms of the women though I am inclined to say that we can well and truly dump this one right back in the careless misogyny box.

Quick note kids: boys are not actually better than girls. Lets all internalise that shall we?

Laura Witz

The Merchant of Venice is running 10th-14th March in Assembly Roxy.