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The Merchant of Venice (Susan Elkin reviews)


society/company: Illyria (professional) (directory)
performance date: 07 Aug 2018
venue: Tonbridge Castle and touring

It’s an interesting change to see The Merchant of Venice played mostly for comedy rather than treating it as the dark play it is usually presented as these days. Of course Shylock (David Sayers) is badly treated and we sympathise with him but most of the rest of director Oliver Gray’s take on the play is suitably frothy for an outdoor summer evening with picnics.

In typical Illyria style just five actors take all the parts and it’s very slick as well as hilariously incongruous. Katy Helps, for example, plays the Prince of Morocco with her face entirely covered in a curly black wig to represent the “complexion” Portia (Nicola Foxfield) dislikes so much. Old Gobbo, who has a delicious West Midlands accent, sports a long white beard and wig which is such a good disguise that I couldn’t work out which of the two female actor it was. There’s a great deal of near continual energetic work from every one in the cast to make it all fizz along.

Beau Jeavons-White gives us a fairly neutral Antonio, almost always presented as gay in modern productions but not particularly so here, and then – all six foot four of him and complete with his own beard – a delightful simpering, Nerissa holding her skirts up coyly. Foxfield’s Portia achieves a good range of moods too with a lot of unusually convincing flirting and spooning with Bassanio (Chris Wills – good) and then real power in the court scene in which Wills nips off several times to double as the Duke.

David Sayers is an impressively versatile actor to watch. He toils on an off with the caskets as Portia’s tetchy servant (including a nicely played out moment when the lead one is too heavy) plays Lorenzo with flair and excels as Shylock in a beautiful mosaic patterned robe. He finds all the wariness, determination and anxiety that Shylock needs and ensures that we are moved by the broken man he eventually becomes. And because the changes between characters are so rapid there’s no time to think yourrself in and out of roles which makes this punchy performance even more admirable.

Full marks to the company for voice work. The cast adeptly uses a wide range of accents to support the multiple roles. And playing without amplification in the open air is quite a challenge but all five actors project and enunciate so that every syllable is fully audible which means that every nuance of the story telling is commendably clear.

It’s a pity that I saw this show on one of this season’s rare wet nights. “In thunder, lightning or in rain” – sorry, wrong play – was the order of the evening. No wonder the audience chuckled when Foxfield reached “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Nonetheless the cast cheerfully completed the performance, raising their voices over very heavy rain for the last ten minutes and almost all the audience, enshrouded in polythene, macs and umbrellas remained good humouredly in place to applaud them at the end.

I really like Illyria’s work and am now looking forward more than ever to their Pirates of Penzance next week and The Hound of the Baskervilles next month. Catch their work on tour if you can.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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