The garden at Hall’s Croft first came to my attention when I learned you could get married, or have a civil partnership in the grounds – it’s a shame you can’t do the same at the Birthplace, but we’re a lot closer to traffic and you’d run the risk of your wedding being papped by 60 ecstatic Japanese tourists. One of the great things about the garden at Hall’s is the potential for outdoor theatre – a couple of weeks ago, some friends and I went to see Theatre Set-Up’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice.
Half an hour before it opened, I was sitting on the steps opposite, staring in fascination as the elderly rich of Stratford (so elderly! So rich!) carted the contents of (what they probably call) their sun lounges, conservatories, drawing rooms and breakfast bars into the green and pleasant land of theatre. There were cloches. There was cutlery. Chairs were de rigeur, and in one party of six septuagenarians, I distinctly saw a snowy tablecloth receive, on platters, two cheeseboards and a quiche.
The sheer stamina on view impressed me. People whom the uncharitable might regard as nearly dead were acting as their own pack mules, deckchair in each hand as they trekked through an Old Town heatwave, determined to live the dream of eating an excellent dinner, while watching mediocre Shakespeare.
Antonio opens the play saying that, in sooth, he knows not why he is so sad, and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser. Generally, the characterization was unfocused and the relationships undefined. I didn’t know why Portia loved Bassanio, or why he reciprocated – Salanio’s claim that Antonio ‘only loves the world for’ Bassanio describes an intensity of emotion that nobody onstage seemed to feel. The most interesting thing about the production was their use of the text. Not so much individual line-readings; in fact, the performance was characterized by inaccuracies; but with the ingenuous system of doubling and cuts. With a cast of only eight actors, it’s a tribute to editorial skill that the only felt losses were Gratiano’s mocking repetitions of ‘a Daniel’ in the court scene, and a few choppings from Nerissa and Jessica.
The production’s heavy cutting of the ‘salads’ (Salanio and Salarino) should be a model for directors – they weren’t missed. My friends and I were divided on the success of the Lorenzo/Shylock doubling. I, personally, was a fan of both performances, but felt the company wasted an opportunity of shedding any light on the (as ever) under-directed Jessica. As Shylock’s daughter, the actress began with startling vitriol against her father, spitting as she resolved to become ‘a Christian, and [a] loving wife’ to the Gentile Lorenzo, only to transform into a sulky madam the second she actually got him. Perhaps the doubling was meant to show Jessica exchanging one identical set of problems for another, but there was no suggestion that the amorous lover was as difficult as the father.
Only one moment in the production really disturbed me, and it was the audience who caused me unease. It’s always nice when a play by Shakespeare can show you the mass of anti-Semitism eating Eton Mess in an audience. At the end of the trial scene, Antonio (still alive, still fully-fleshed) gets his penultimate kick by demanding that his Jewish adversary ‘presently become a Christian’. Most of the audience laughed.
There’s no humour in that line; no context or delivery could make it funny. There had been nothing in the production to suggest that a presentation of Shylock as cartoonish or laughable was what Theatre Set-Up intended. It makes me wonder, though, how often that line gets laughs, and where. Anyone else who’s seen a production of Merchant, did this happen to you? What’s the most shocking or upsetting audience reaction you’ve seen?
My sudden enforced awareness of the Merchant audience reminded me of Kate Woods’s Britgrad paper on Sophonisba (1605). The play was performed at Blackfriars where, for the first time, the lighting conditions of indoor theatre directed an audience’s attention right away from each other, towards the stage. Before that, daylit productions in the playhouses meant that audiences were completely aware of each other. It was a point I’d never really considered before – funnily enough, my research into theatre spaces really starts with Aphra Behn and discovery spaces. Today, open-air productions are our closest link to that kind of atmosphere, and it made me wonder what other audience are hidden by the comforting darkness of the stalls.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.