Review: The Merchant of Venice at Stafford Castle

Photo: Robert Day

Please note this is a review based on the first night preview of the production

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Oliver O’Shea

Now in its 29th year, it perhaps is a surprise that this year’s Stafford Festival Shakespeare is the first time The Merchant of Venice is being produced. It’s also the first time Olivier O’Shea directs and the first time the production moves away from a thrust stage into a proscenium set up.

O’ Shea peppers in moments of comedy throughout while making sure the light heart nature of the piece doesn’t detract away from some of the more important themes the play contains.

With the rise of discussions surrounding antisemitism, the role of Shylock is as prominent now, as it ever was. Linal Haft creates a character you can loathe yet emphasise with. At the end of the piece, you can’t help feel sorry for him while also challenge the views you may have during the performance.

The role Bassanio is Alastair Natikel’s first Shakespeare production and he works with the language with ease to portray emotion and meaning. Natikel’s connection Thom Petty’s Antonia is bittersweet, meaningful and poignant.

Jessica Hardwick’s Portia is great, both from the perspective of the princess looking for love, full of naivety but also a sense of wit and playfulness. Hiding under the disguise of a Lawyer’s apprentice reflects the characters high intelligence, challenging stereotypes of what people may think of princesses.  Her closing line prompts a gasp from the audience and you hope the production isn’t over. While being a fulfilling ending, it provokes a discussion about what may happen next.

O’ Shea moves the production away from Venice into a setting reminiscent of 1950’s New York which opens up the possibilities when it comes to the ambitions set, full of recognisable metal rafters propping up the buildings that enclose the open-air auditorium.

The set design by Lizzy Leech works very well and is beautiful to look at, although some of the larger scene changes could have been sped up and it would have been great to see Stafford Castle incorporated in some way instead of being hidden from view. Similarly, with a set designed to make the area feel enclosed perhaps keeping the thrust set up of the festival may have worked better. That being said the lighting design by Tim Skelly works really well and creates some really bold colouring such as the shocking pink that adorns the stage.

In sheer contrast to the setting O’Shea chooses for the actors to perform in their native language. This move does help to bring alive Shakespeare’s language while also making it accessible.Kate Roche’s Brummy accent, in particular, is perfect for the role of Lancelot Gobbo. It creates a variety of tones and emphasises the iambic pentameter which makes the character chirpy, while downtrodden.

The Merchant of Venice isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most well-known play but this is a great production put together in a highly accessible way. With important themes and relatable situations O’ Shea creates a production perfect for audiences today which makes you think while not detracting away from the wit and lighthearted nature of the production.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

5money*Decision based on an opening night discounted price of £15. For more info on this value for money rating please visit here: Introducing a new kind of rating

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