After a successful run of streamed stage readings including Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and The Winter’s Tale, Streamed Shakespeare have put together a fully-fledged online rendition of The Merchant of Venice for your pandemic pleasure. With the nearly 20-strong cast and crew zoomed straight to your screen, the audience becomes a fly on the wall to the deals and betrayals of 16th century Venice.
In the mixed-up world of traders, lenders, and merchants, more than mere money changes hands. A group of young men pine after women just out of their reach; Bassanio (Jamie Collette) hopes to solve a riddle set by Portia’s (Jess Loudon) father to win her hand in marriage while Lorenzo (Jim Southwell) plots to elope with Jessica (Chiara Osborn), the daughter of the pious and protective lender Shylock (Geoff Sirmai). However, Antonio’s (Haki Pepo Olu Crisden) future dreams are dashed when a failed trading venture means he must repay his bond to Shylock with a pound of his own flesh, a debt sure to kill him.
Without any bloody battle scenes, The Merchant of Venice translates well to the streaming format with scenes largely set in court or courtships. Director Roslyn Hicks paces the drama well as characters transition on and off screen and occasionally hand objects through their cameras like magic. A lot of the nuance of live performance including voice modulation and body language are lost with the mediating screens but Hicks made sure costuming and small details like the actors’ virtual backgrounds continued to add to the experience of the script, amplifying the little physicality still available.
In particular, the addition of edited video clips for the game show “Wife or No Wife” and the VNN nightly news coverage, edited by David Castle, were clever asides that worked to expand the sense of a bustling, gossiping Venice just outside the characters’ screens. Transitions between scenes and locations were cleanly signposted with mock newspaper headlines summarising the scandalous actions of the prominent Venetian businessmen. At the same time these visual elements reinforced the audience’s position as nosy witnesses to the romantic wheelings and dealings between the many love-struck characters. Focusing on the crisscrossing love stories can help to overwhelm the unsavoury anti-Semitism and xenophobia underpinning attitudes and the “message” of the central affair in this script, redirecting interest towards the squabbles and mistaken identities beloved in Shakespearean comedies.
Sirmai performs a strong Shylock with an interesting erratic air and plenty of props that established him as a man determined to feel at home in his surroundings. Collette’s Bassanio was gentle and charming, paired well with Loudon’s stubborn and intelligent Portia. Her sarcastic and cutting conversations with her maid Nerissa (Holly Champion) were performed with a modern ease that drew cry-laughing emojis from the audience chat.
As the days of the year slowly drip away, many of us can probably relate to Jessica, watching forlornly from her window for a chance to change her destiny! Or maybe that’s a tad too dramatic, even for Shakespeare. Either way, the Streamed Shakespeare performances are a comforting reminder that the world of theatre is still kicking and awaiting the return of its live audiences once again.
The Merchant of Venice is being streamed by Streamed Shakespeare from August 21st – 23rd
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