Imogen Tink explores the history behind one of Birmingham's most well-renowned theatresWritten by Imogen Tink on 19th May 2017
Review: The Welsh National Opera presents The Merchant of Venice
Culture Critic Will Gillingham reviews the first in the WNO's week at the Birmingham Hippdrome, André Tchaikowsky’s adaptation of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'
“... nothing short of a contemporary triumph...
André Tchaikowsky’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as performed by the Welsh National Opera, is a twentieth century realisation of the original, which twists the Bard’s prosaic lyricism into modern ideology and renders the culminating product as nothing short of a contemporary triumph.
The operatic play adorned the stage of the Hippodrome last night, on the Birmingham leg of its national tour. Under the skilful direction of conductor Lionel Friend, the curtain rose in accompaniment to a mellow orchestral symphony, which would go on to provide a magnificent complement to the opera throughout. At first light, we are introduced to the overarching plot which gives this reworking an additional layer to Shakespeare’s tale, as the eponymous Merchant lies on a chaise-longue under the eye of a psychotherapist, and begins to unravel the story of his homosexual, and unrequited, love for his friend and beneficiary, Bassanio.
“... a minimal set, two large, cast-iron sets of drawers bookend an urban 1920’s financial setting...
Martin Wölfel, playing the Merchant Antonio, provides, with his soprano disposition, a sensitive aspect to the character which is otherwise unseen in Shakespeare’s original script. As we are opened into a minimal set, two large, cast-iron sets of drawers bookend an urban 1920’s financial setting, where we see Antonio as a recessive, coercible stockbroker, under the thumb of Shylock’s (Quentin Hayes) workplace dominion. Antonio is reluctant to strike the infamous ‘pound of flesh’ bargain, and it is only his love for Bassanio (Mark Le Brocq) which causes him to go against his better judgement. As the act closes, an element of despair is introduced into the deal, where a desperate Antonio attempts to kiss Bassanio before he departs to pursue his heterosexual courtship of Portia. It is in this which we are made to understand the ambiguous despair which Antonio discusses at the opening of the play – it is not the fate of his ships which casts a shadow over his near-future, but rather his own undoing in facilitating the object of his love to leave him.
Act two opens into Belmont – a setting of 20’s rural Italy, featuring sun-kissed vines and deck chairs. Following the gravity of the opening act, the scene provides a cathartic comic-relief to the opera, as the several wooing ‘chest’ sections of the original are amalgamated into one. The delightful, and silent, depiction of the Prince of Aragon (Juliusz Kubiak) lollops brainlessly around the stage, while the Prince of Morocco (Wade Lewin) blows the door off the hopeless gold chest with dynamite. However, it is the exquisite vocal ability of Portia (Sarah Castle) which dominates the scene, ably embellished by Nerissa (Verena Gunz). Their assertive hand-offs and girlish advances of both each other, and their apt male counterparts Bassanio and Gratiano (David Stout), establish them directly as the superiors of the play, while around them the scene becomes one of sexual reverie in the 20’s summertime. It is they who dictate the men’s return to Venice, and it is from there that we are led into the climactic trial scene.
The original courtroom here is replaced by a white-walled cell, with only a handful of onlookers watching Antonio and Shylock facing up on opposite ends of a long table. The scene is an accurate, and moving, realisation of Shakespeare’s vision, with each onlooker turning to face away from Shylock (and the audience) as his core speech on the similarity of Jew and Christian unfolds. Castle is once again central, commanding the room with a tempered, sombre (and yet evidently unlearned) argument for Antonio, her melodic range accentuating the scene in a way which the intended spoken speech otherwise wouldn’t.
“In a fell swoop the formula of Shakespeare’s original is overturned to instead present a story of tragedy, which ingeniously entwines with Shakespeare’s script without deviating.
At the close, it is the brief added epilogue which moves the audience to pre-eminent applause. After reaching the generic end of the Shakespearian comedy, with all wrongs being righted, we return to the therapist leaning towards Antonio. In anguish, Antonio thrusts his head in his hands, before hurling his ring at the moon in despair. In a fell swoop, which lasts barely a minute, the formula of Shakespeare’s original is overturned to instead present a story of tragedy, which ingeniously entwines with Shakespeare’s script without deviating. This operatic outing into the contentious, religiously charged world of Italy’s financial quarter boasts a flawless, multi-dimensional plot, which, if not seen to be entirely superseding the original, is at the very least a contemporary grounding in, and embrace of, the current sociological climate, which will provide a new and intriguing perception to an already remarkable play. This is a sensational recreation, not to be missed.