Creation Theatre have taken on one of the bard's trickier plays in their latest of a long and highly regarded list of open air Shakespeare productions, and I’m happy to say they’ve worked their magic once again. Also, it would appear Creation had cast a weather spell before the event because, despite the ever looming rainclouds across the Oxford skyscape, the only notable shower of the play’s duration coincided neatly with the interval.
As I understand is often the case with Creation's work, the tone and feel of the play appears to have been dictated as much by their inventive conceptual design and costume as it has by their imaginative reinterpretation of the text: the 1930s costume and spinning set of multipurpose shipping crates perfectly complimenting the production’s various musical interludes.
And on the subject of music, this was by far the most musical rendition of Shakespeare I’ve witnessed. Though the chorus occasionally felt a tad contrived, I felt this lyrical approach added some much needed warmth to the convoluted narrative and provided welcome respite from the play’s occasionally darker themes. I was grateful these more serious elements were played so loudly, too: such huge topics as religion and prejudice are seldom tackled so loudly or unashamedly by modern playwrights, or indeed so ambiguously, and the players were able to convey the uglier aspects of the story with as much passion and vigour as the more comical elements.
The cast were excellent, too. Though there were a few scenes where the actors' delivery seemed slightly laboured, or unsure, all of the players were so busy swapping between roles that their strengths eventually shone through – usually in the play’s more humorous moments. The two standout performances of the night came from Jonathan Oliver, who all but stole the show with his complex, sympathetic portrayal of Shylock, and Leila Crerrar, whose passionate, assured depiction of Portia anchored the story.
Overall, I found this production both entertaining and thought provoking, and though the emphasis on the lyrical qualities of the text initially made it difficult to follow the story, after a short while it served to demonstrate the beauty of Shakespeare’s words. Although some phrases were given a more modern context, Director Natalie Abrahami’s interpretation of Merchant is as faithful and reverent of the original text as one could hope for.