The Merchant of Venice

14th to 18th March 2023

William Shakespeare | Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company | Directed by Leni Robson

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Shylock’s words, Shakespeare’s only central Jewish character, are the most famous spoken in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. They ring through the centuries as a call to recognise our common humanity. In the current political climate (‘Stop the Boats’) it is a call which needs to be heard. Art, particularly stories and particularly plays, is in a uniquely powerful position to make such a call so Derby Shakespeare’s current sell-out production of this problematic play, directed by Leni Robson, is perfectly timed.

Casting a female Shylock works well, not least because Niki Caister delivers a winning sympathetic performance. As a woman and a Jew she is doubly oppressed in the macho world of money lending. I’ve seen Shylock portrayed as a vindictive and malicious Jewish stereotype and felt deeply uncomfortable; Caister’s Shylock emerges as a fiercely smart businesswoman and mother not to be crossed. She captures the boldness and confidence demanded of anyone who belongs to a community which faces prejudice and discrimination.

Shylock is not, however, the Merchant of the play’s title; Antonio is. Craig Campbell gives a moving and melancholy performance in the title role of the wealthy merchant who agrees to bankroll his best friend Bassanio and puts his life on the line in the process. Montgomery Ashford nicely combines irresponsible spendthrift with devoted friend to Antonio in his performance; his interest in wealthy heiress Portia, which seems more romantic than mercenary, is convincing.

Susie Brayshaw-Thorne’s Portia is full of bright-eyed mischief and wit and there’s great chemistry between her and Alex Wrampling’s delightfully cheeky lady-in-waiting Nerissa. The excitement of young love is captured by Harry Hodder and Emma Merrey as the eloping Lorenzo and Jessica and there’s excellent comic work from Kirsty Whaler’s Lancelet Gobbo and Phill Hodgkiss’ Gratiano. Benjamin Lawley’s Solania is particularly impressive and promising: a young actor I look forward to seeing in future productions.

The high quality of acting is consistent across the whole cast, Shakespeare’s words being delivered with exactly what you’d expect from a company specialising in the Bard: an understanding of the rhythms and poetry of the language.

The decision to set the play in the ‘yuppie’ culture of the 1980s stock exchange works well to highlight themes of mercantilism, consumerism and greed. We’re promised ‘Big hair, big shoulder pads and big business’ and it delivers. And the clever use of a 1980s computer (on loan from Derby Computer Museum apparently) in the casket scene works brilliantly.

Despite some nicely performed lighter comedic moments concerning the ‘business with the rings’ at the play’s conclusion, we are left, quite rightly, feeling deeply uncomfortable about the treatment of Shylock. A powerful image lingers long in the memory and Shylock’s call to recognise our common humanity demands to be heard: “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

Derby Shakespeare’s production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is playing at Shakespeare House on Kedleston Road in Derby from Tuesday 14th to Saturday 18th March 2023.

Merchant cover