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The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe

Marion Marples

The Globe's Renaissance and Revolution season continues with the Merchant of Venice, often described as a troubling play.

The way it deals with the moneylender Jew Shylock and his relations with the locals – ie Venetians and Christians – to us may seem cruel and heartless.

The recreation of the Renaissance setting of Venice's bustling quays and markets, with today's groundlings immediately drawn into the delivery of goods arriving from east and west, re-awakes Bankside's own more recent industrial ghosts. At the same time the widespread anti-semitism of Elizabeth 1's time is played out in the character and treatment of Shylock and maybe reinterpreted currently in the anti-immigration debates.

Shakespeare brings together two folk tales, one certainly known to Chaucer's contemporary John Gower, who is buried in nearby Southwark cathedral. This story of the suitor finding a bride by selecting the right chest is woven into the story of the pound of flesh.

Director Rebecca Gatward invokes Venice simply by the use of a stepped bridge and Venetian poles and lamps. Carnival time allows colour and hilarity. Portia (Kirsty Besterman, taking over at short notice) brings wit, style and humanity. The group of friends, including the eponymous merchant, Antonio, just about convince in their natty suits and yuppie-like desire for wealth and women. Nerissa, Portia's maid (Jennifer Kidd) is a lively foil to her mistress, almost as clever, and falls for one of the friends, Gratiano.

The parade of possible suitors is entertainingly played, including a small cameo performance by Philip Bird as a very Spanish Prince of Aragon.

The stories come together as Portia's true love Bassanio (Philip Cumbus) realises that his importunate behaviour in begging Antonio for a loan so he can court Portia, and the fact that Antonio's ships are mostly lost, means that Shylock is demanding repayment not of his loan, but of a pound of Antonio's flesh. Shylock's desperation for revenge, fuelled by the abuse and hatred he has daily received in his work, is further exacerbated by the fact his daughter Jessica (Pippa Nixon) has eloped with Lorenzo and is spending his money freely. John McEnery's lean and rackety form, clad in distinctive Jewish garb, contrasts strongly with the contemporary cocky young men.

Portia re-appears, disguised as the lawyer Balthasar, and judges that if Shylock will not accept the proffered repayment he must take his bond, the pound of flesh-but not a drop of blood more. Beaten, he has to agree to giving his daughter a dowry of all he has and also to become a Christian.

Sub plots of vows of fidelity and rings, the revelation of the true identities of those giving judgement and the safe arrival in port of Antonio's ships swiftly lead to three happy couples preparing for marriage in a traditional Globe rousing final dance.

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