The Merchant of Venice might be one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and enduring plays. But, as the Pop-up Globe made sure to publicise, it’s also his most controversial. Filled with polarising characters and dark themes, it’s almost hard to classify it as a ‘comedy’. Nevertheless, the all-male cast of the Pop-up Globe’s Buckingham’s Company, under the directorship of David Lawrence, made the packed audience laugh, cheer and applaud on the opening night of their season.
The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Bassanio, a Venetian man in debt to his friend Antonio. Desperate to win the heart of Portia, a wealthy heiress, Bassanio is forced to ask Antonio for one more loan in order to help finance his attempts at courting Portia. However, as Antonio does not have enough money at hand, Bassanio loans money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock on Antonio’s behalf. Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most cunning antagonists, proposes that instead of charging interest on this loan, Antonio should provide a pound of his own flesh should he fail to repay his debt on time.
As with every performance I’ve seen at the Pop-up Globe, the Merchant of Venice is a highly accomplished experience. The cast are all exceptional, with particular praise going to Patrick Griffin and Will Alexander, who truly embody their female roles for gender-bending hilarity as Portia and Nerissa. Peter Daubé makes for a frightening Shylock, to great effect, and manages to imbue him a sense of sympathy in the final act. The staging is simple, yet effective, and the audience interactions are consistently engaging and funny.
Unlike some of the Globe’s other offerings, this production is far more traditional and perhaps has less of a point of difference. For myself, this wasn’t an issue and it made the focus of the evening the wonderful array of characters and Shakespeare’s words themselves. However, perhaps for some, it might be disappointing not to see a woman on stage or a Kiwi touch.
Regardless, The Merchant of Venice, as with anything on offer at the Pop-up Globe, makes for a wonderful night out at the theatre. Let’s hope the Globe continues to be a fixture on Auckland’s cultural scene for years to come.
Reviewed by Stewart Sowman-Lund.