It is increasingly difficult to review London fringe shows and indeed it is not fortunate for The 21st Century Merchant of Venicedirected by Carol Allen that many independent low-budget productions on the London theatre scene are inspiring, thoughtful, impressive visually and very well-acted. Her bold-sounding concept which offers a cross-gender, multicultural and modernised adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is merely a superficial exploration of racial prejudice and greed.
On the other hand, there is a place for shows asThe 21st Century Merchant of Venice which falls into a category of ‘Shakespeare for beginners’ and as such offers an educational role by providing a clear narrative and light comedy relief that entertains and teaches at the same time.
The idea to have a female Shylock and replacing a greedy Jewish merchant with a Jewish banker is the best element of the adaptation only thanks to Clare Garrigan’s emotional performance which saves The 21st Century Merchant of Venice from becoming an amateur production.
The biggest problem with the production is that it promises a radical, contemporary version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that reflects today’s multicultural society and then does not deliver on this promise. For example, Antonio, now a Muslim immigrant (played by Fahad Salman with a slight Arabic accent) enters into a bond with Sara Shylock for the sum of 3,000 ducats so that Bassanio, a young man he secretly loves could marry well and improve his financial situation. Yet there is no chemistry between the two men and so the interrogation of homosexual aspect of their relationship is not explored.
The production is let down by a cluttered, heavy and difficult to rearrange set design too. Actors spent far too much time moving various pieces of furniture to portray many different locations of The Merchant of Venice. The first nights are always tough and indeed acting also seemed under-rehearsed with some actors even feeling uncomfortable on stage.
If you expect to pass a pleasant evening with a bit of light comedy with a few modern twists and get to know Shakespeare’s play this is a show for you butif you expect a more intellectual, visually arresting or emotionally profound theatre experience from a great English classic you willbe very disappointed.