This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. This is Louie Woodall here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from London.
London is the true home of Shakespeare’s plays. Not in its palaces or theatres, but in the open air of the city, where his poetry and prose first rang out from the open roof of the Globe.
Today, London is home to thousands of secret squares, plazas, and spaces ripe for a bit of the Bard. A certain magic suffuses open air performances–the audience and players bound together by their shared endurance of the elements, simultaneously part of, yet apart from, the hustle and bustle of the city around them.
The London Contemporary Theatre invoked this magic and then some in the course of two open air performances of The Merchant of Venice on October 8 and 9. Staged in the beating heart of the city’s financial district, the players could not have chosen a more appropriate venue for a comedy based on risk, reward, and exchange. In Shakespeare’s time, Venice was the mercantile hub of the known world; today, London holds that crown, and squashed on the stone steps of Exchange Square, flanked by the modern cathedrals of capitalism and the site of the worst financial crisis for nearly a century, the classic story assumed a fresh resonance.
True to their name, the London Contemporary Theatre performed in modern dress against a backdrop reflecting the glittering spires of the city around them. Antonio and Bassanio were portrayed as slick businessmen who could have wandered out of any one of the myriad bank headquarters surrounding the square, while Portia assumed the haughtiness of a pampered Chelsea heiress. Fortunately, their performances were far from one-dimensional: Tom Crowley’s Bassanio convinced as the naïve, love-sick suitor, and Claire Cartwright, as Portia, played up the long-suffering posh girl routine while never leaving the audience in doubt as to her brains and guile. Joshua Barton, meanwhile, gave an understated performance as Antonio–neither overplaying the character’s virulent anti-Semitism towards Shylock at the beginning of the play nor his abject terror in the court scene at the end.
Jonathan Ashby-Rock’s Gratiano and Alice Brittain’s Nerissa provided admirable supporting performances, although the former’s dabbling in slapstick erred more towards the grating than gratifying.
The standout performance, however, was William Harrison-Wallace’s Shylock, who expertly captured the dual nature of the character as both villain and victim. The venom with which he castigated Antonio in his soliloquy prior to sealing the bond for a pound of flesh chilled more than the rain pounding down from the curdled London sky- but it was his heartfelt interpretation of the famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech that provided the play’s most affecting moment. With his Blackberry and briefcase in hand, he could have blended into the crowds milling around the stage in an instant, adding extra poignancy to his lament on the divisions men place between themselves and others. His entrapment by Portia, while disguised as Balthazar, seemed more cruel than cathartic, such was the sympathy he evoked.
Open air theatre is never short of challenges, and the whole cast has to be commended for squeezing the play into a brisk hour-and-a-half, and for keeping the audience enthused as the rain poured down. Leaving Exchange Square after the show and blending back into the crowds heading for the City, I was struck anew by the parallels between monetary transaction and human relationships. Thankfully, this was, of course, exactly what Shakespeare–and the London Contemporary Theatre–intended.