The Merchant of Venice is an ambitious play for an amateur theatre company to take on. With Oxford Theatre Guild (OTG)'s long history and range, however, it wasn’t an unreasonable challenge. Perhaps the bigger obstacle was the time constraint of performing in University Parks. This forced OTG to rework and strip back the play to create what they call 'a slim-lined, more dynamic' version. The result, however, was sparse and served to highlight the prejudice and injustice without leaving time to dwell on the subtlety of its impact.
Oxford Theatre Guild (OTG) claims in its program that The Merchant of Venice is 'a master class of slow-burning tension.' Indeed, the fuse is lit early when Shylock requests a pound of Antonio’s flesh be his bond, should Antonio forfeit his loan. Unfortunately, OTG’s production doesn’t quite keep that flame alive.
Joseph Kenneway’s performance of Shylock was certainly strong. The character’s famous speech, which proclaims his justice in seeking revenge, was delivered poignantly. Kenneway didn't overplay famous lines such as, 'if you prick us do we not bleed', but let them land and reverberate. Where it felt weaker was in the second half. In part, there simply wasn’t time to contemplate what was happening – that his chance to exact revenge against years of mistreatment had been snatched away and turned on him. His anguish and humiliation simply didn’t carry through.
Not all was lost, though. Kelly Ann Stewart’s performance of Portia was eminently watchable. Her ability to breathe life into Shakespeare’s lines – her timing, her facial expressions, her pauses – so that they felt naturally delivered and not out of time, was superb. Alongside her, Richard Readshaw’s Prince of Morocco was brilliantly funny. The actor had stage presence; he commanded your attention and your interest. And while his scenes were brief, they were certainly memorable.
One of the more intriguing choices was the portrayal of Bassanio. Self-assured and cocky, Jonny Dagnell didn’t play a sympathetic romantic lead. But then, The Merchant of Venice isn’t a traditional romantic play. The love story (or stories given the two amorous subplots) is not built on affection, but the exchange of fortunes – and by extension, power.
We did not get the happy ending of a Shakespearian comedy that we appeared to see. Dagnell’s arrogant and unlikable Bassanio left us on edge; unsatisfied, unsure and unresolved. We did not get what we felt we deserved, and perhaps, given what happened to Shylock, that was exactly what Shakespeare (and OTG) intended.