The Merchant of Venice has been everywhere recently. The RSC’s version closed last month, Shakespeare’s Globe’s Merchant played earlier in the summer, Propeller’s ‘pocket-sized’ version is currently on tour. But now it’s the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s turn to stage Shakespeare’s tale of prejudice and mercy in a beer-guzzling, bass-pumping version with an afternoon start time that’s clearly designed for students currently studying the play. It’s absolutely perfect for newcomers to the play – full of drinking and dancing and sexiness both hetero- and homosexual to excite youngsters who’ve only ever seen it as words on a page and, in Tom Stoppard’s version, short enough to keep them thoroughly entertained.
The NYT promise a politically potent update. The chilling grimace of an Anonymous mask is plastered on promotional material and the cast list includes a note that most actors will appear as ‘protestors’ at some point. Menacing mass protest works best in the political plays (‘Coriolanus’, or ‘Julius Caesar’) so it comes as little surprise that this angle fails to shine through in a very personal tale of justice and revenge and one desperate merchant who fails to pay his bond to a Jewish moneylender. While it doesn’t deliver much political comment, the shift to a modern Venice is otherwise justified and incredibly stylish thanks to Richard Gellar’s costumes and Cecilia Carey’s clever Venetian blinds set. The principal success of the update is that it points out that the play is, sadly, not as anachronistic as it should be. It still provokes shocking reactions: there was actually a laugh from the back of the circle when a Christian citizen spat in the face of Shylock (Luke Pierre) at the press performance.
While not a groundbreaking retelling, the NYT’s Merchant of Venice is a remarkably clear production. Tom Stoppard’s abridged version snips the play back to under two hours long and remarkably it still feels pretty intact, with only the true development of the relationship between Christian Venetian Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter Jessica sacrificed to cuts. The scenes in Belmont where party girls Portia (Alice Feetham) and Nerissa (Melissa Taylor) wait to be wooed are particularly brilliant, though the lovely ladies are completely outshone by the would-be paramours who visit them. The Princes of Morocco and Arrogan are both played by women (swaggering Paris Campbell and aggressively sexy Lauren Lyle respectively), a welcome and completely hilarious change.
This Merchant of Venice is the chance to see the acting stars of tomorrow before they get famous enough to sell out theatres far larger than the Ambassador’s. It’s also encouraging to see that talented young actors are still being taught to do Shakespeare well, with exceptional clarity and a real respect for the text.