Merchant of Venice, The (3 stars)

The Merchant of Venice

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 14 Oct


It’s easy enough to see, in Britain’s current climate of religious intolerance, why Mark Thomson should wish to open the Lyceum’s new season with Shakespeare’s tale of money and racism. It is one of Shakespeare’s trickiest pieces. Our 21st century sensibilities find the notion of anti Semitism repellent, but Shakespeare, given his era, could be nothing but racist by our standards. For the author, Shylock is an impediment to the happiness of the Christians, nothing more, so while we find the long denouement after the villain is despatched a distraction, in Shakespeare’s time this might well have been the true pay off. Perhaps Elizabethan audiences didn’t find these bigots as unprepossessing as we might today.

Thomson tries to resolve these various problems with a pretty straightforward contemporary dress production. Shylock (Jimmy Chisholm) is robed as an orthodox Jew, perhaps putting us in mind of that atavistic fear created by religious foreigners with beards so familiar outside the theatre. He shuffles about, dwarfed by his debtor Antonio (Neil McKinven) and an amorously intense Bassanio (Liam Brennan), capturing the alienation and pathos of the character, but not stinting on the bile and rapaciousness that this creates.

In front of Gregory Smith’s alternate modern smoked glass marketplace and Belmont, Thomson has placed three of the best performers on the Scottish stage in Chisholm, McKinven and Brennan, and none let him down, with Brennan extracting some splendid humour from the final, difficult, scene. Neve McIntosh is an accomplished Portia, with an austere, forbidding beauty giving way to the odd bout of girliness, while Mark McDonnell’s punterish Gobbo creates some bumptious humour. But there are a couple of downsides, to do perhaps with over-sudden transitions, a hazard of the text. Ruth Connell’s Jessica is well performed, but the character’s rapid change from a traditional, if repressed daughter to a kind of disco bint is hard to follow, while the ever vexed problem of why Antonio should risk so much for Bassanio is plausibly explained by a certain polymorphous sexual energy between the two, but this is introduced very belatedly here. All the same, this is a pleasing engagement with a difficult piece, that’s well worth the admission.

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