Shakespeare is art; in this production, hilarious, unpredictable art, wonderfully capturing the raucous nature of the theatre of Shakespeare’s day.
The premise is simple, but highly effective; there are five classically trained actors, one of whom is drunk, attempting to perform their pared-down version of a Shakespeare play; in this case, The Merchant of Venice. Some members of the audience are given instruments, which they can use during the play to tell the drunk actor to have another drink, while the member of the company who explains this and attempts to control the action wields the Horn of Last Resort; if anything illegal or dangerous happens, this will be sounded to stop the show. These frivolities aside, one unlucky audience member had the task of holding a bucket...just in case.
Even if you have no idea what the play is about, there is something inherently funny about a man in velvet robes with an elaborate feathered hat stumbling about and trying to speak in iambic pentameter, albeit with a few more swear words than Shakespeare originally wrote. That being said, Antonio was good enough to address the audience and clarify plot points, explain jokes and even define complicated words or turns of phrase, prompting a great deal of confusion from his fellow actors. “Who do you speak to, my lord?” asked Bassanio. “The...pigeons?” Antonio replied, hopefully. “Yes, indeed my lord, there are a great number of pigeons in this Venetian courtyard,” came the response, to great applause. As well as this, Antonio condemned Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism, and even gave some insights into the text, saying in reference to Bassanio, “In Shakespeare’s version, we’re a bit gay”!
The other actors coped admirably with their drunken cast mate’s antics, especially poor Bassanio who bore the brunt of it. From Antonio clambering on him to running onstage and telling him which casket to choose to win Portia’s hand, saying they had no time for his big speech, he rarely faltered. Shylock also had a difficult time, mostly by virtue of his character, but when Antonio encouraged the audience to give him a round of applause after his last line it was a lovely moment. The choosing of the caskets scene itself was cleverly done, with suitors being brought in from the audience – although when the first suitor chose the right casket, we were hastily and loudly informed he had, in fact, picked a different one.
Speaking of yelling, the highlight of my evening had to be Antonio shouting at the fireworks from the Military Tattoo; “Shut up! I’ve got Shakespeare to deliver! It’s art!” I would have to agree with him there, Shakespeare is art; in this production, hilarious, unpredictable art, wonderfully capturing the raucous nature of the theatre of Shakespeare’s day. Iago states that “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used” (Othello, Act II, Scene 3); replace wine with several cans of Tennants and half a bottle of Jack Daniels and you could definitely say it was well used, to deliver a fantastic show.