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Merchant of Venice

Last night we went to see “The Merchant of Venice” at the Globe (a regular annual trip arranged by the campus sports and social club). The production was very good indeed – great acting and lots of music and spectacle. Unusually, they had added some bits of scenery to suggest the cityscape of Venice: at one corner of the stage were some rustic wooden poles, perhaps ten or twelve feet long, for tying up gondolas, and the normal short run of steps up to the stage had been replaced by a wooden bridge. The costumes were mostly Elizabethan but with a few tweaks to add the flavour of a busy modern metropolis (the programme made comparisons between Venice and New York), such as trilby-like hats for the men and one of the merchants in dark pinstripes!

Most surprising of all, though, was how funny the play was. When we think of “The Merchant of Venice”, we tend to focus on the trial, and Shylock’s contract with the eponymous merchant Antonio. But the subplots, of Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, Gratiano’s of Nerissa and the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, are much closer in tone to Shakespeare’s other Italian comedies, and the production certainly brought that out. As is typical with Shakespeare’s plays there is a part for the company’s clown in Lancelot, but this production added a nameless courtesan, played (I think) by Leander Deeny (who also took the minor parts of servants Leonardo and Stephano), who clopped about the stage in his high-soled chopins and engaged in “business” (in both the stage and usual sense) with some of the male characters. At the end of the performance all the cast joined in a jig, as was Elizabethan tradition. Perhaps because of the courtesan’s “clogs”, I was suddenly reminded of the big dance number at the end of the movie “Zatoichi”, and I wondered whether Takeshi Kitano had ever seen an authentic production of Shakespeare! Given the Bard’s popularity in Japan, it’s not so very improbable…
This was my second visit to the Globe, and as usual I treated it as something of a research trip as well as a good night out. In the theatre shop I bought a heavily-illustrated children’s book “A Shakespearean Theatre” – with their cut-away illustrations and tidbits of information, books of this sort are really useful for writers, condensing years of academic research into vivid images. Of course I have other, more grown-up resources to fill in the gaps, but an illustrated book makes it much easier to visualise what other works labour to describe.