REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

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.

Les Halles, Saint-Eustache and kitten biscuits

We are in Paris, having survived the tender mercies of Eurostar’s ‘special assistance’ (v kind, v helpful, v unpleasant experience of being a kind of disability Prince Phillip), a terrifying cab driver (who, I am sure, called us ‘whores’ all the way to 1st), our equally terrifying German landlord, and the deathspiral that is our building’s staircase.

You reach Eglise Saint-Eustache via Les Halles, which on Sundays is a kind of big abandoned Disneyland, all shiny concrete steps and cheerfully hairy hedges. There’s a huge central avenue which, on entrance, I managed to miss entirely; it’s full of listless teenagers and very elderly French couples, whom I adore because I can actually understand their accents. The church rises behind Les Halles – above and behind, in fact, sunkissed and complacent, beautiful and self-assured in its cloud of pale stone. The rather hit-and-miss English of the .50 euros guide-sheet describes the church as an ‘harmonious edifice’, which I think gets it about right. The southern side of the church (like all of Paris, like the building in which I currently live) is undergoing the inevitable dusty renovations, and so worshippers enter across planks (accessible planks, though, so A+), greeted by an elderly woman (really quite arrestingly toothless) hoping to attract extra communicants for the morning or evening services.

I love big Catholic churches; they manage to be simultaneously cavernous and warren-like. The stations of the Cross and the individual chapels make exploring much more of a journey than the simple, see-what-there-is layout of your average Anglican church. Predictably beautiful, Saint-Eustache foregrounds its vie culturelle and its vie solidaire as much as the usual routine of messes, and the practical opportunities the place offers suggest that the church’s commitment is genuine. As well as confession, you could see the sacristan or a priest for lay counselling, join any number of groups for various secular or spiritual purposes, and, well, there was the free organ recital, in which the organist managed to predict exactly the sounds of the Day of Judgment approximately once every ten minutes. An odd thing, to see people all sitting in a church listening not looking. I started wondering what would happen if it actually were the Day of Judgment, and if the CoE has a contingency plan for such an eventuality, but then I realised I was feeling dehydrated and decided to head home.

France is supposedly a secular state but a Sunday in Paris – the juxtaposition of ubiquitous metal shutters with their ubiquitous aerosol coating of ethnicity-based slurs – indicates that, well, it’s still a country of, er, religious racists. The one supermarket we managed to find (we ended up using a tramp as a landmark, oh dear) was, apart from us, patronised entirely by North African women and incredibly skinny gay men. It had the weirdest vegetable selection I’ve ever seen, but also JAMBISCUITS. I don’t know what these are called, because we’ve thrown away the box, because we’ve already eaten them all. After discovering that they were made with pectin, my vegan-to-the-point-of-obstreporousness companion developped an instant addiction. They come with pictures of kittens on. We’re going to buy more tomorrow. In a shock twist of fate, the French have yet to embrace the ‘free-from’ section of supermarkets. In deference to said militant veganism, no products containing DEATH have been purchased, although I did eat the world’s largest tuna-and-cheese crepe last night, in a move to establish my RIGHTS and personality. Vegan ran from room. Steak-eating friend arrives on Friday; I look forward to sharing some tasty, tasty murder.

On Addiction: Michael Berg and Kabbalah

A quotation from Michael Berg, co-director of the Kabbalah Centre:

Being addicted doesn’t make us bad, weak or hopeless. Just the opposite. It means we have a unique soul that wants more.

Wow. No wonder bastardised Kabbalah has become so popular with crazy celebrities – you’re an alcoholic because you’re special! You do too much coke and ket because you’re great! You’re an unique soul! And no, being addicted doesn’t make you bad, weak or hopeless, but being addicted to drugs or booze quite clearly is bad, takes enormous amounts of strength & support to overcome, and can lead people into situations which are incredibly hopeless. Berg also says that

When looking through the lens of Kabbalah, addiction is seen as a positive door to greater personal transformation […]

Um, that’s not ‘addiction’, that’s ‘recovery’. The only ‘door’ that addiction leads to is illness, misery & death.

And yes, I did take these quotations from Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP newsletter. That’s because I get indescribable glee whenever she advises us to create capsule wardrobes around a $400 shift dress, or to make bruschetta for our tiny, toddling children.