If there’s one problem with Shakespeare, it’s that his plays are so long. Hamlet alone can last five hours without decent editing. This Merchant of Venice has had a going-over with Shylock’s knife and runs to a trim 95 minutes, keeping the plot moving and tension pulsing.
The action takes place around, and sometimes on, a large table, props produced from concealed drawers in elegant slo-mo by company members who might not be in the current scene, but remain around the fringes anyway. It’s an interesting approach to have no entrances and exits, and mimics the seating arrangement in the theatre – the small audience is seated higher, staring into what is essentially a pit. It’s all very judgemental, appropriately enough for this play, and so the non-participating actors also get to cast their silent glances.
But what of Shylock, the pivotal and controversial character? Stephen McNeice plays the moneylender as a man almost broken by being on the sidelines, forever hated and mistrusted by his neighbours. It seems almost reasonable that years of being on the receiving end of such poison would drive a man to revenge; Paul Christian Rogers’s Antonio, a good and kind man by any other standard, is an absolute shit to Shylock as a Jew. Set in roughly the 1940s, the anti-semitism has added punch. As Shylock looms over Antonio with his scalpel, choosing the best place to cut, it’s an odd sensation to feel horror mixed with, if not pardoning, then understanding.
The Merchant of Venice is at the Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road SE4, until 7 December. Tickets £13 / £10. For more information see the Brockley Jack website. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary press ticket.