The tenth anniversary of the Globe (what do you mean, you haven't been yet?!) is being celebrated with a series of plays grouped under the heading Renaissance and Revolution. The Merchant of Venice is the second of the Bard's pieces to open in the season, following the recent Othello, with Love Labour's Lost bringing up the rear when it starts on 1st July.
This production of The Merchant of Venice easily surpasses the Othello; if you're choosing something to take relatives, London visitors or a date to, we heartily recommend it. It's a polished, sharp, accomplished show, with a great range of high-quality acting, easily tackling comic low-brow, middle of the road romantic fluff, high-brow philosophical debate, and everything in between.
In such a good ensemble piece, it's almost unnecessary to mention those who shone above the rest. Nevertheless, Kirsty Besterman (Portia) played the leading lady with a real witty, clear and convincing air. Among a near-flawless cast of men, a likeable Philip Cumbus (playing Brassiano, with a pleasing look of a young Jack Bauer about him) took the audience along with him on his voyage towards maturity through the play. John McEnery's Shylock had the right combination of chilly heartlessness, intellect used for negative gains and later pathos about his downfall. Above all, Craig Gazey's clown, Launcelot, played the audience well, winning laughs for his subtle jibes at the occasional ridiculousness of Shakespeare's text.
And then there's the theatre itself. This is one of the first times Londonist has seen the Globe looking really different. A bridge, a jetty and some simple props bring Venice right into our favourite theatrical space in this great city. Combined with music, fabulous costumes that are part-1920s-gangster, part-Elizabethan-gent, plus flags, dancing, chanting and masks, The Merchant of Venice gives the Globe a rare, exotic feel.
This Londonista has to admit, she doesn't 'know' The Merchant of Venice like she knows a lot of Shakey's other stuff. It was refreshing, then, to see a lesser-studied play performed so well.
Sure, the text is thought-provoking (Are they going to be happy, marrying for money? What about gambling with other people's credit? And of course, tsk, that Jew's treated pretty badly after all that chat about justice and mercy, don'tcha think?), but none of Shakespeare's plays are simple - and that's why we love them. Who doesn't want to leave a theatre feeling a little uncomfortable about the hypocrisy of human nature?
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, 28th June-6th October, Shakespeare's Globe, for more information go to The Globe website here. Tickets £5-£32.
Photographs by John Tramper