site search by freefind advanced

 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Progress Theatre Company - The Merchant of Venice

Reading Abbey Ruins Shakespeare 2003, 21st July to 2nd August

This is from the NWN.

Revenge is sweet for Progress

Progress Theatre: The Merchant of Venice, in the Abbey Ruins, Reading, from Monday, July 21 to Saturday, August 2

This play has possibly attracted more modern critical comment than any other of Shakespeare's comedies.

Much of this hinged on the characterization of Shylock. It is too easy to be tempted by his tragic potential and the ease in which he dominates with both physical presence and passionate language. Compare him against the garrulous buffoon Gratiano, an energetic John Goodman or the passive self-pitying Antonio, a melancholic Matt Tully. On the other hand, play him too villainously and his 'Jewishness' is a sensitive minefield of liberal argument.

Clearly then, an awkward play to stage, so how do you present the recalcitrant lead as other than a negatively stereotypical money-lending Jew, a callous cheap caricature yet still remain true to the themes of revenge? It is a challenge facing any production.

So it is to the credit of both the Progress cast and the director Lesley McEwen that the 1930s costumed production succeeds in confronting the complications, achieving a gratifying blend of romance and tragedy. It neatly balances the excesses of Shylock and his enemies, leaving neither party blameless. Shylock is indeed a ruthless man, but it is clear that he has been much goaded by the merchant Antonio.

The desire for 'a pound of flesh' and his contempt for mercy is the bitter result. Grahame Walshe as a powerful Shylock is acerbic but dignified. His crushed pride at the treatment he receives from the court after the defeat is palpable, feeding the audience with the uncertainties that dog the critical debate.

But let's not forget the comedy and, parallel to the Venetian politics, the sub-plot of marriage and love exists in the alternative world of Belmont. The ladies of Belmont, Portia (Katie Hamilton) and her maid Nerissa (Holly Clark), offer a whimsical romantic angle and Wyn Richards as Gobbo delivers a fine reading of one of the playwright's less amusing clowns.

The setting was spartan and performances all round were excellent. However the less experienced cast members need to ensure a more forceful delivery.

On the whole a professional and agreeable performance of one Shakespeare's more troublesome texts and sadly, owing to external circumstances, the company's last Abbey performance until 2005, when they promise to return with Romeo and Juliet.