The Merchant of Venice
Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until Sat 12 Jul
Don’t be put off by Glasgow’s unpredictable weather and miss this summer’s Bard in the Botanics. Cheerful and casual in its approach to theatre, the outdoor play season is a big hit with aficionados and novices alike. On the grassy knoll behind the main glass house, loyal fans set down picnic baskets, blankets and plastic chairs in front of a stage dressed with cream-coloured curtains. At dusk, swing music from the ear of a large gramophone transports the audience to 1930s Italy, where Gordon Barr’s production of The Merchant of Venice is set.
A spirited cast of Scottish, Irish, English and American actors expertly straddle the sinister and humorous sides of this most complex of Shakespeare’s comedies. Nicholas Cowell’s Bassanio is an amiable everyman, endearing in his pursuit of the rich and beautiful Portia. Supporting him is Antonio, played by an intense Stephen Clyde. Together they approach their enemy, the charismatic Jewish moneylender Shylock, who demands a pound of flesh if the debt cannot be repaid.
American actor John P Arnold shines in this role, at first provoking sympathy when his daughter betrays him, this turning to dismay when the depth of his love for money is revealed. A complex and engaging character, Arnold’s Shylock holds the play together, and his famous speech of ‘when you prick us, do we not bleed?’ sends a chill down the spine.
There are plenty of light-hearted moments too. Sarah Chalcroft brings humour and grace to the other key role of Portia. Richly dressed in all of her scenes, she tells her pompous suitors to choose from three caskets of gold, silver and lead. One of these boxes holds her picture, and whoever chooses the correct box wins her hand. This task, however, proves harder than it seems, and provides many of the production’s more amusing moments.
Barr’s production is a comic romp that never allows us to forget the serious issues at its heart and repeatedly asks the audience to explore their own attitudes towards prejudice.