Shoulder-pads are back with a vengeance! Set in the greedy Eighties, this version of Shakespeare’s controversial tale of racial tension pulls no punches in telling of the danger involved in borrowing money from an enemy. Two executive desks fill the stage to create the arena for bureaucratic politics. Costa Cambanakis’ lighting scheme makes the simple set multi-functional by using spotlights to pinpoint events such as suitors choosing from caskets to win the hand of the wealthy Portia. The caskets are briefcases and the suitors are bold, brash and extravagantly attired, standing against a breeze block wall that reminds the audience of how desolate the money-grabbing Eighties now seem in retrospect.
Even the love subplot is melancholy. Jessica (Hannah Wilmshurst) - in Alice band, pearls and pixie boots - betrays her father to elope with her new love Lorenzo as life on ‘The Venice’ council estate plays out. Her father, Shylock, is presented as a cruel, complex character so that there is some satisfaction in seeing him get his comeuppance. Ed Blagrove as Shylock spurts out a vile passionate hatred of the Christians and maintains a convincing accent throughout. Antonio (Tom Bateman) has borrowed money from his arch enemy Shylock and the power shifts that take place in their relationship are narrated with insight by the pulses of well chosen 1980s pop songs between each scene. Their intensity is equally matched and both characters maintain a concentrated opposition throughout. Yuppy love blossoms between French-plaited, stilleto-heeled Portia (Catherine Field) and the smooth but down-on-his-luck Bassanio (Tim Goldman). To lighten one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, a fabulously frivolous Gratiano is provided to us by Nathan Grassi, who extends a bright Miami-sunshine-smile to Nerissa (Rachel Johnson).
With a running time of just over two hours, the script has been trimmed with a sharp blade, yet to no detriment. Director Alistair Nunn has got the balance just right, bringing a variety of tones to the characters to make the storytelling process come alive. Naturalistic acting presents the Shakespearean text as modern speech and the actors appear physically comfortable in their roles. Brooding alpha male Antonio is left on stage at the end, crystallising his central position in the story. However, it is Portia - disguised as the ‘upright judge’ - who saves the day with her sharp wit and warm compassion, ending it all by exercising forgiveness of her new husband.
Three cheers to BMH for imagining such a refreshing and original setting in which to tell Shakespeare’s most controversial tale.