Tuesday, July 03, 2007
All That Glisters...
The sky did not look happy. It really didn’t. It frowned and fretted and let fall the odd, experimental droplet of rain. Enough, certainly, to have the groundlings in the yard at the Globe exchanging worried glances and unfurling those plastic cape-y things that look like bin liners with armholes cut into them. And then, just as it seemed as if the heavens would open, the sky brightened again. Which was a good thing indeed, as the Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice is one that could use a bit of luck.
The press night had already been pushed forward due to the unexpected departure of Michelle Duncan, who was to play Portia. And then, on the night before I went, the actor who plays Gratiano had to be replaced by an understudy at the interval because of an attack of gastric trouble. Fortunately there were no further mishaps when I went along and even the weather eventually began to play ball, allowing us to concentrate on what is an intriguing if slightly unsatisfying production of what is often termed one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays (there’s a nice piece in the programme on this unhelpful label).
The most notable thing about Rebecca Gatward's production is the way it concentrates on bringing out the play's humour. Merchant is not one I’d ever thought of as a comedy but in her hands it is very entertaining with some proper laughs. This is only achieved however by a downplaying of the Shylock plot, with John McEnry giving a solid but rather low-key performance in the role. It’s an approach that has caused quite a split in the reviews, with many, including Lyn Gardner, labelling the production a cop out for taking this creative tack. Though I enjoyed it, I think, on reflection, I agree; it was slick and nice to look at (I particularly liked the Rialto bridge they’d erected in the yard) but it felt as if the meat of the play was missing, it had a hollow at its heart.
I had dragged French Claire along for the evening, as not only is she good company, but she studied on the Text and Playhouse MA course at King’s College London which is run in conjunction with the Globe, and is therefore full of useful information on all things Shakespearian – but did she know where the bar was? No (or should that be non), she did not. We almost ended up in a queue for the soup stand, for God’s sake, which would never do.
The Globe is of course unlike other theatres, it is open to the elements for one thing and, given what had happened earlier in the day, it’s not surprising that the actors were occasionally drowned out by the sound of helicopters overhead. This was however less of a distraction than the tiny, howling baby someone had with them in the yard. Now for the most part I’m all for exposing kids to the arts at a young age. I think the odd bit of giggling and seat-back kicking is worth enduring it if they end up being engaged with and excited by what they’re seeing, and hate it when people get all sniffy and British about children in theatres, galleries and restaurants and so forth. But from the raw, animal sound this kid was making, it was clearly barely out of the womb and therefore, I’m thinking, not really capable of appreciating a nuanced line reading.