Review: The Merchant of Venice, RSC at East WinterGarden

“Tell me where is fancy bred”

This was actually the first time I’ve been to the cinema to see some theatre, this being a rare example of the production in question being one that I hadn’t seen. Polly Findlay’s production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC suffered a little by following a most striking one at the Globe and the reviews said as much. But with a little distance, the comparison was much less fresh in my mind and the novelty of this screening – cabaret tables, a bar, interval food from Wagamama – made it a rather fun experience.

Findlay adjusts the balance of her interpretation so that Antonio becomes its centre as well as its titular character, his presence dominates the stage at the beginning and end, his relationship with Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Bassanio so often merely homoerotic made explicitly homosexual. In the midst of Johannes Schütz’s anonymous golden-hued set, their passion is made manifest from the beginning and becomes a driver throughout, marriage to Portia and the commitments it entails take second place.

But for all the interest this reading gives, the production at large never really quite connects. Palestinian-Israeli actor Makram J Khoury’s Shylock feels almost sidelined, no real complexity emerging from the role; the much-lauded Patsy Ferran never quite settles as Portia, manic rather than measured and whilst clearly unhappy to be a beard, there’s no real interrogation of her less palatable side in eviscerating Shylock; and Jessica, the hallmark of a good production for me, barely registers despite Scarlett Brookes’ best efforts.

So I’m kinda glad that I didn’t trek up to Stratford to see this but still grateful that I was able to take the opportunity to see this filmed version, the journey to Canary Wharf was much easier! And with the accompanying interviews and featurettes, the whole package was quite illuminating, I could see myself going to one of these things again.

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