Shakespeare’s tale of financial and emotional turmoil is here located in the Venice of the near future; references to the failing Euro and the vicious world of money-lending conjure images of recession and evil loan-sharks. It’s an obvious point to make and made in an obvious way, but that’s not really the focus of this production. What is far more striking is the decision to cast a female Shylock, namely Petina Hapgood, who also happens to be one of the directors. There are lots of good reasons for this gender change. Women are poorly represented in “The Merchant of Venice” – there is Portia who boldly disguises herself as a doctor in order to both trick her husband and fight for the life of his best friend Antonio, but she spends the majority of the play as the demure maiden. So having a female Shylock redresses the gender imbalance and also challenges the portrayal of the traditional evil villain. Hapgood seems perfectly suited to the role, giving us a stubborn and bigoted middle-aged businesswoman, full of malice and bent on claiming her pound of flesh. She’s convincing, and also opens up a different understanding of the role, for example adding intensity to the pain Shylock feels at the loss of his/her daughter.
All of this action flits between an Italian café where the slickly dressed lads do their plotting and banking over espressos, and the strange, hopefully intentionally cringe-worthy “Fort Belmont” reality TV contest in which the players compete for Portia’s hand. This, one assumes, is the attempt to adapt Shakespeare for a modern audience in this production. The result is off-putting, and hard to relate to the rest of the production; one can’t help but feel the comic potential here is lost, as is the case with the final scenes where the truth of the girls’ cross-dressing escapade is revealed. The acting is good, on the whole, but there’s an excessive amount of teenage scampering and a disappointing lack of depth.
There are, though, some redeeming features which make the production at least watchable. There is real, engaging tension in the courtroom scene and the Jewish-style music by singer, Deborahgrace Bensberg, and guitarist, Nicholas Bensberg, provides continuity and roots us in the religious conflict which sits at the heart of the play. The main reason for turning up, though, is to catch Hapgood’s performance, which is strongly convincing and brings a refreshing perspective to the role of Shylock.
The Merchant of Venice is at the Courtyard Theatre in London until Sunday 30 of September. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Courtyard Theatre website.