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Watermill - The Merchant of Venice

4th to 6th October 2001.

This was the Newbury Weekly News review.

Crackling with theatrical attack

'THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: A JAPANESE VERSION', at The Watermill, from Thursday, October 4 to Saturday, October 6

Directed by Ion Caramitru, actor, director and former Romanian Minister of Culture, the Watermill was the first stop on a tour which is also taking this production to Rotterdam, Bucharest, Stratford and finally Tokyo.

Performed in Japanese by members of innovative Japanese contemporary theatre companies, the language barrier quickly proved to be no such thing. With Shakespeare's play pared to short, snappy scenes, this vibrant production fizzed with energy and contemporaneity, crackled with theatrical attack.

Simply staged and tellingly lit, the production crossed continents and times in dress, theatrical approach and music, with Japanese stylistic elements and costume mixed with European and American features.

The comedy in the 'Merchant' is rarely accentuated, but here it was pushed to the full, particularly in the scenes between Portia and her sassy maid Nerissa, and in the calling of Portia's first two unfortunate suitors. There was a strong erotic element, with a tangible sexual charge between the three couples. Portia, played by Atsuko Ogawa, high-spirited and thoroughly likeable, was in thrall to Bassanio from the first. Shigehiro Tanaka played him with sensitivity and presence, but so dominating was Portia from the court scene on, that one feared for their future: here was a real Posh to his Becks.

Cultural 'cross-dressing', with traditional Japanese dress worn in conjunction with European fashion, pointed up the universality of the play, across nations and centuries. Antonio (Rikiya Koyama), in a jacket which gave him the air of a Wall Street banker, was a powerful presence, an utterly believable minder to Bassanio, their strong relationship palpable. Leather jackets and jean jackets screamed youth, and Lorenzo and Jessica ran away in camouflage shorts, sunglasses and rucksacks, dead-ringers for every Japanese backpacker on the tube.

In this production relationships between the young were as important as the venality of Shylock. Yet in current times, the question of religious and racial intolerance his presence poses cannot be overstated, and the 'finale', an East European folk dance followed by a stylistic danse macabre between Shylock and Antonio, epitomised both the fun and the darkness of this reading of the play.

So, three weddings, no funeral, and no pound of flesh. Hugely enjoyable.


And this was the Newbury Theatre short take.

Last week I went to see Merchant of Venice at the Watermill. Nothing unusual there, you might think, but this production was in Japanese, so I didn't understand a word of it. It was, nevertheless, quite engrossing, and with a rough idea of what's going on (thanks to the synopsis they supplied) it's surprisingly easy to get the gist of it (the whole experience is probably similar to watching Madam Butterfly sung in Italian).

It does, of course, let you concentrate not on the words but on the delivery, the acting and the overall production, all of which were very impressive. It's not something I would have chosen to see, but my son's doing MoV in A-level drama, so it seemed the right thing to do. I'm glad I did, and he thoroughly enjoyed it too.