In Gratiano, a forgettable side character from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice steps on stage for an hour for a solo show about heroes, villains, nobodies and the rise of fascism.

The show demands some attentiveness and former knowledge, but the performance can only please all.

Ross Ericson, who wrote and stars in the piece, puts on a very ambitious show in which many ideas are brought together in the uninterrupted monologue of Gratiano. The premise is that the show is the sequel to The Merchant of Venice, set however in a post-WWII Italy. Bassanio, the star of The Merchant of Venice, has been killed, and Gratiano is being interrogated by the police for his possible involvement. Under questioning, Gratiano discusses what has happened since the supposedly happy ending of the Shakespeare play, describing as part of this the rise of fascism in Italy.

Gratiano alternates between a scene in which he speaks to the invisible inspector and one in which he talks to himself in a bar, reminiscing drunkenly about his past. In the former of these his language is colloquial, often slang, while in the latter he speaks in a poetic, occasionally rhyming, Shakespearean way. Through these manners of speaking, Ericson creates three layers of meaning, linking the anti-semitism in The Merchant of Venice to the anti-semitism and fascism of the times of Mussolini and to the neo-fascism and xenophobia of our times.

The production definitely leaves one with much food for thought: while Bassanio is described as being first the hero in The Merchant of Venice and then the villain when he eagerly embraces a role in Mussolini’s Italy, Gratiano is always a side character (until this show): but are side characters villains as well if they back the rise of fascism? This is a question often asked about ordinary Germans who supported Hitler, and the use of Gratiano, who in The Merchant of Venice similarly contributes only minimally to the larger anti-semitism of the play, in presenting it is quite brilliant.

The cleverness of the play however is sometimes defeated by its over-ambitiousness. In its effort to pull so many strings together – the rise of fascism before WWII as well as in our times, the role of side characters and heroes, the true conclusion, fifteen years later, to a Shakespearean play – it occasionally seems to hand Gratiano lines he would not say. ‘Men like me’, he announces at one point, going off to describe the short-sightedness of the masses, an overly self-conscious line that turns believable character into political predicator.

That being said, Ross Ericson is absolutely magnificent in this show. Not only does he prove himself an excellent writer, able to write convincingly both in a Shakespearean and colloquial way, rarely forgetting to add character and also poetry to his lines, he is one of the most convincing actors I’ve ever seen: he seemed to literally become Gratiano. His mannerisms, fast-paced talking and poignant facial expressions did full justice to his thoughtful lines. The show demands some attentiveness and former knowledge, but the performance can only please all.

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The Blurb

Bassanio has been murdered and, under suspicion, Gratiano is forced to revisit his fascist past. He was never the hero – just a minor character, the plucky comic relief – but he never thought he played the villain. Set in post-war Italy, this challenging sequel to William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice explores the politics of prejudice in the modern age and asks just how Mussolini managed to use democracy to turn a people against themselves. *****(BritishTheatreGuide). **** (ThreeWeeks). From the team behind The Unknown Soldier.

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