For its production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Rae Glasman, the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company swaps Shakespeare’s 16th century Italian setting for 1930s London – 1939, to be specific. The temporal decision – and the weighty politics, glamorous fashion (brought to life by Rosamund McCormack’s sumptuous costume design), and haughty mannerisms that accompany it – mark this rendition of Merchant as bold and innovative.
EUSC’s Merchant is perhaps as much centred on the large radio that sits at stage right as on reinterpreting the text’s themes of bigotry and justice. A clever and oft-used component of Kate Brown’s set that, in conjunction with Chris Armistead’s sound design, plays wartime newscasts and romantic tunes to set the mood, the radio serves as a solemn reminder that the prejudices within the piece are far from isolated, enduring from Renaissance Italy to the 20th century and beyond.
However, as potently as the onslaught of World War II and the persistence of Nazism parallels the anti-Semitism that the play’s famous moneylender Shylock (Joe Shaw) – here a Russian Jew transplanted in East London – faces, the production falls prey to its own conceits. Shaw clearly conveys an outsider with his skullcap and Slavic accent, though the latter does not quite make the linguistic mark and distracts from his otherwise eloquent delivery. His performance, perhaps most dominantly conveying the wronged man’s vitriol – he powerfully executes Shy- lock’s, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech – finds equilibrium by the courtroom scene, when fear becomes the prevalent emotion as he concedes to convert to Christianity.
Furthermore, the eponymous merchant and Shylock’s antagoniser, Antonio (Pedro Leandro), and his friends – including his handsome, magnetic right-hand man Bassanio (Will Fair- head) – exude Old Etonian plumminess ad nauseum, crisply bedecked in jackets and ties. As interpreted by Leandro and Fairhead, the characters fit a little too well in the West End upper echelons to be fully likeable.
Meanwhile, the heiress Portia (Isobel Moulder), barred from marriage until a suitor successfully solves the riddle left in her father’s will, manifests as an icy, martini-sipping femme fatale straight out of film noir. An elegant kimono and fur stole complete the picture. Two of Portia’s hapless suitors, the Prince of Arragon (Lewis McKenzie) and the Prince of Morocco (Tom Birch), steal the show, interjecting some much-needed comic relief with their coarse pomposity. Though Portia’s more playful side emerges in her exchanges with her maid Nerissa (Caprice Avis) and Bassanio, whom she marries, Moulder’s initial hardness is off-putting. Still, in the courtroom scene she, like Shaw, reveals the depth of her character – in her case, the gravitas beneath Portia’s veneer of acerbic buoyancy. Disguised as a wigged and robed doctor of law, she delivers the heiress’ famous diatribe on mercy with cool self-assurance.
Though stronger in ambition than in execution, EUSC’s interpretation of Merchant may be far removed from Venice, but the production serves as a testament to theatre’s potential as a tool to initiate change and open political dialogue.