One of Shakespeare‘s lesser performed, and perhaps lesser known The Merchant of Venice receives its moment in the spotlight thanks to the communal and diverse theatre troupe, the East London Shakespeare Company.
It’s always going to be commendable for a company to stage a lesser known Shakespearean text, as although we may often grow tired of the more iconic narratives, there are distinct reasons for their success; unrivalled verse both of the prose and poetic kind, bold, yet flawed characters inflicted with ultimatums and missed opportunities, and highly tragic or comedic plots depending on the play. What’s resonant in The Merchant of Venice is the ‘soap opera’ manner in which characters are introduced to the audience. The episodic structure of the play should lend itself to a contemporary audience, however from the off, this creates difficulty for those especially new to either Shakespeare or the play text to truly comprehend what is happening and to digest the breadth of characters on offer.
The company’s director Jesse Ayertey directs a considered, however complex interpretation of the play text. During the evening, I question the time period of the piece; although Emily Bestow‘s staging suggests a nod to the present day, with street signs hinting an East London backdrop, and a Chicken and Chip shop sign subtly sitting pretty stage right, accents and costume choices make reference to a series of previous decades. The language itself is a tough obstacle course to wander through, however thanks to the episodic structure, this allows for characters to become familiar and situations a lot clearer.
There’s no doubt that the cast’s chemistry is prevalent throughout the evening. There is a true sense of ensemble, which lends itself to true Shakespearean text. This camaraderie welcomes the audience to immerse themselves into the evening. Within the ensemble cast, there are a handful of performances that steal the show. Michael Paulin‘s bumbling Prince of Arragon, a suitor to the untouchable Portia has the audience chuckling from the get go. His clumsy, unthreatening demeanour earns him a round of applause for his comedic efforts.
Amelia Parillon delivers a brilliant performance as Nerissa, Portia’s assistant. She has a real grasp of the text, and supplies an understated however grounded performance. Alec Bennie‘s Gratanio owns the Shakesperean text, to the point that you’d think he lived and breathed the language.
The play itself is not necessarily the most exciting, however the play does harbour a series of topical themes that if zoned in on in a lot more detail could make for a really powerful social commentary. Themes such as religion, wealth, class, and love make an appearance, however with this production I believe it’s a tussle between including every character and conveying the play’s message; the production leans more towards to former but could do with a lot more of the latter. 3/5
Review written by Lucy Basaba.
The Merchant of Venice was shown at the Olde Rose and Crown Theatre from Monday 23rd until Friday 27th November. For more information on the East London Shakespeare Company, visit here…