Pop-up Globe, The Entertainment Quarter, Sydney
September 12, 2018

Following successful runs in Auckland and Melbourne, the Pop-up Globe is now charming Sydney audiences with lively, immersive theatre experiences seeking to recreate the excitement and immediacy of Shakespeare’s second Globe, with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors opening last week. Friday night’s scheduled opening of The Merchant of Venice, however, fell prey to a storm – torrential rain, hail and a string of severe weather warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology testing the Pop-up Globe’s status as an “all-weather venue”.

Merchant of Venice, Pop-up GlobeThe Merchant of Venice at the Pop-up Globe. Photo: supplied 

As in the Pop-up Globe’s other productions, The Merchant of Venice offers plenty of spirited audience interaction – though the groundlings are (mostly) safe from being spattered by fluids from the stage – but this is a comedy with an edge, as Anne-Louise Sarks’ production for Bell Shakespeare highlighted so keenly last year.

New Zealand Director David Lawrence finds a nice balance between comedy and drama (this is not the all-out panto-fest of Pop-up Globe’s Comedy of Errors), aided but some memorable performances from the Pop-up Globe’s Buckingham’s Company (who also perform Dream).

Peter Daubé gives us a Shylock of simmering anger, this production highlighting a particularly personal animosity between the Jewish moneylender and his Christian rival Antonio, while not shying away from the racist treatment Shylock is subjected to by Antonio and others. Jonathan Martin is a subdued, melancholy Antonio, an erotic subtext to his relationship with Bassanio (Cameron Moore) touched on but not really explored. Jade Daniels is a demure Jessica while her Lorenzo, Patrick Carroll, is one of a band of lads on the town – Joshua Cramond’s Gratiano gets some laughs as a particularly boisterous party animal. Some trimming keeps the show fairly tight, and while Old Gobbo is left on the cutting room floor, Asalemo Tofete puts in a fine comic turn as his son Launcelot.

Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice at the Pop-up Globe. Photo: supplied 

In a stand-out performance, Portia is played by Patrick Griffin (Sarah Griffin in disguise, in a nod to Elizabethan strictures), who charts a compelling course from sharp-tongued and sarcastic in the opening to fiery in the finale. In fact, it’s her energy that carries the show. Griffin is teamed up with Will Alexander as Nerissa in an effective comic pairing – each of their entrances is accompanied by ceremonial music, which becomes a running gag, and their opening routine sees Nerissa sourcing ‘suitors’ from the audience, who are duly skewered by Portia. The casket tests allow for more comedy, and are done with game-show musical accompaniment – Jason Te Kare as the Prince of Morocco (also Salerio), practically foams at the mouth, while Chris Huntly-Turner is a doddering Prince of Arragon (also the Duke of Venice).

More serious moments hit home as well – Daubé’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” was delivered to an uncharacteristically quiet theatre, the actor drawing the audience in, while in the final scene the revelation of Shylock’s fate to Jessica and Lorenzo was greeted with stunned silence.

The Merchant of Venice at the Pop-up Globe. Photo: supplied 

The anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice has long been contentious, and in his Director’s Notes, Lawrence acknowledges more recent productions that have presented Shylock as more of a “tragic hero”. He suggests, however, that we “might also – being totally dispassionate and viewing the play as a 1590s audience may have – consider a reading where, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Shylock is deservedly gulled for his killjoy Puritanism; that the glee the characters take in Shylock’s misfortunes is motivated by his own ill grace”.

This production falls somewhere in the middle of all this, without really committing or taking a stand – Daubé’s Shylock is sympathetic but by no means heroic, his racist ill-treatment shocks, and though we see the personal consequences for Shylock, it is barely condemned. While contemporary audiences might expect a more sophisticated take on these and other issues in the play, this production is still no doubt an interesting and enjoyable way in for those less familiar with the work.

Ultimately for Lawrence, the play is about gambling, and in that spirit he creates an energetic, entertaining romp compelling in both its humour and drama, with some beautifully judged audience involvement and – as per usual for the Pop-up Globe – plenty of music and dancing thrown in.


The Merchant of Venice plays in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth until November 4

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine