The Merchant of Venice Opera @theCentre : A Review

October 11, 2016

30th September 2016

Opera Companies:

Wales National Opera

Co-production of the Bregenzer Festspiele, Austria, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music programme & Teatr Wielki, Warsaw.

Supported by the Getty Family as part of British Firsts.

Wales Millennium Centre

Review by Lucy Menon @LucyMenon

Over the years I have attended many an intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare, but never as an opera.  As part of the celebrations of the four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death, The Merchant of Venice forms the final part of a series of operas (also including Macbeth and Kiss Me Kate) which pay homage to the bard.  With a musical score by André Tchaikowsky (1935-1982) and libretto by John O’Brien, it is hard to believe that this opera was only first performed in 2013 at the Bregenz Festival and had a UK debut at the Wales Millennium Centre this September courtesy of the Welsh National Opera.

Shakespeare’s controversial play, often held up for being anti-Semitic, becomes even more intriguing when Tchaikowsky’s own background is considered.  A Jew and a homosexual, Tchaikowsky embodied attributes of both the main characters of Shylock and Antonio.  Having had a traumatic childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII, he was smuggled out to be raised by his grandmother and became a musical protégé. It is pertinent that the opening and closing scene has the figure of Antonio laid on a couch in the stereotypical psychoanalyst pose almost embodying the composer’s own need for therapy.  This works well and sets up the exploration of why the character of Antonio is indeed “so sad”.  The trial scene also becomes all the more significant in light of Tchaikowsky’s life, as it could be seen to represent the conflict the composer must have experienced himself.  The homosexual content of the play is sometimes played down by productions, but the opera brings it to the foreground, allowing the exploration for the bonds of love to be demonstrated as well as the monetary bonds which bind the characters to each other.


(Antonio on the couch) Photo: Johann Persson

Split into three acts, the opera managed to address a different aspect and theme in each section which served to renew an energy and driving pace for the production.  Act 1 dealt with the mercantile aspects of the play; Act 2 transported the audience to the romantic green space of Belmont and Act 3 culminated in the tension of the trial scene.  An epilogue also followed to focus on the multiple pairs of lovers and the resolution of the confusions that had occurred.


(Trial Scene) Photo: Johan Persson

Antonio, on the night of this review, was played by Feargal Mostyn-Williams (Martin Wölfel had laryngitis). Mosty- Williams did a superb job of conveying a tortured soul and looking particularly pale and petrified whilst facing the potential extraction of a pound of his flesh His interaction with Bassanio (Mark Le Brocq) was entirely believable and heartfelt.  The gesture of the men touching each others’ faces was repeated at several points and created an intimacy that was sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected which served to increase the intensity of emotion.  The night, however, belonged to Lester Lynch who brought out the extremes of feeling in Shylock.  At points contrite, at others vengeful, by the end one cannot help but experience at least the stirrings of sympathy for the Jewish moneylender when he is completely humiliated in court.  Lynch manages to convey a great depth of emotion in the varying cadences of his voice and this is particularly evident in the famous “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech.


(Lester Lynch as Shylock) Photo Johan Persson

Elements of comedy are fused with the more sombre aspects of this play which allow for light relief in what could otherwise be considered quite a macabre detailing of exacting vengeance.  Act 2 sees the representation of Belmont and an almost film-set quality to proceedings as Portia (Sarah Castle) enters attended by an entourage.  A hedge maze is on stage and also projected onto a screen at the back and serves to put a humorous slant on the task of the suitors in choosing a cask in order to win Portia’s hand in marriage.  The suitors are also outlandish in their behaviour and physical comedy ensues from leaping about to preening in mirrors which creates a more rounded production by linking visual aspects with the vocal talents of the participants.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by Tchaikowsky,       , Music - Andre Tchaikowsky, Libretto - John O'Brien, Director - Keith Warner, Designer - Ashley Martin-Davis, Lighting - Davy Cunningham, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 2016, Credit: Johan Pers

(Portia and on of her suitors) Photo: Johan Persson

Whilst sometimes it seemed that the music and singing were slightly discordant, the vocal talents of the individuals is not in doubt and there were indeed wonderful orchestral moments: rolling timpani coming to a crescendo with cymbals to emphasise the point at which Shylock was about to collect his pound of flesh from Antonio; deep brass over the moment that Shylock’s body lies centre stage and a more light hearted string accompaniment for the epilogue when the lovers parade under a vast projection of the moon.  What was also impressive were the facial expressions and body language exhibited by each member of the cast which helped to emphasise the emotion of the piece and to reinforce the narrative.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by Tchaikowsky,       , Music - Andre Tchaikowsky, Libretto - John O'Brien, Director - Keith Warner, Designer - Ashley Martin-Davis, Lighting - Davy Cunningham, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 2016, Credit: Johan Pers

(Lovers under the moon during the Epilogue) Photo: Johan Persson

It is such a shame that Tchaikowsky never got to see his work performed, as the English National Opera initially rejected the piece and he died only three months later.  However, his spirit lingers on as he bequeathed his skull to the RSC so he has now become Yorick, ensuring that for him, in some way, the show would always go on.


Romeo and Juliet @New_Theatre 9 & 10 September @nyaw_ccic

August 31, 2016



To celebrate its 40th anniversary year, National Youth Theatre of Wales 2016 presents Shakespeare’s most famous love story about star-crossed lovers destined to end in tragedy. This is a dynamic, modern version of Shakespeare’s classic with movement from renowned physical theatre company, Frantic Assembly, plus live music and vibrant storytelling.

Friday 9 September, 19.30pm
Saturday 10 September, 14.00pm and 19.30pm


Find out more.




Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive launched by @CardiffUni PhD Student

August 26, 2016

Michael John Goodman

This week Michael John Goodman launched the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive. This is a valuable resource featuring over 3000 illustrations from the four major illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works in the Victorian period. Michael Goodman, a PhD candidate at Cardiff University, has painstakingly scanned, tagged and prepared these images and made them available under a creative commons license for others to play around with. This archive is already making me think differently about Shakespeare. For example, I’ve discovered an illustration of Ariel from The Tempest dressed up in a way similar to the representations of Lady Fortune. This begs the question, might Ariel represent a figure of fortune somehow?

Check out the archive here:


Congratulations on a spectacular achievement Mikey!

[Johann Gregory]



BBC Shakespeare Archive Launched Online

August 8, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 11.57.23

This year the BBC has launched a super Shakespeare Archive, available for those in schools, FE colleges or universities. It includes all kinds of Shakespeare-related media, including television adaptations, radio plays, images, info and animated tales.

It’s something that I will be sharing with my students this autumn, and I look forward to seeing what they make of it. Several students requested better access to the BBC television adaptations in module feedback last semester, so this is going to make a big difference I think.

Link to resource.

Find out more about this resource here and here.

[Johann Gregory]




July 25, 2016




During Shakespeare’s time, children’s playing companies were very popular. St Paul’s Boys performed John Lyly’s plays, while the Children of the Queen’s Revels featured plays written by the likes of John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and Ben Jonson, to name just a few. The latter company certainly gave Shakespeare’s a run for its money, and Shakespeare alluded to such troupes in Hamlet, when Rosencrantz speaks of ‘an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion’. But children’s companies rather ran out of fashion as time passed by, and the vast majority of early modern performances we can purchase tickets for today are by adult companies.

I was thus looking forward to Everyman Youth Theatre’s production of Richard II, having seen and reviewed an adult performance of Romeo and Juliet just a couple of days previously. I was curious to see how the ‘little eyases’, as Shakespeare might term them, compared. Indeed, the young actors did a great job. Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays, written entirely in verse. Once or twice the children stumbled over Shakespeare’s knotted verse, but, unlike many adult performances I’ve seen, they exemplified respect for Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets, and it was quite a marvel to see some of the youngest children delivering Shakespeare’s lines with such alacrity and panache.


The play began with dubstep music and staccato movements, which reminded me somewhat of the beginning of the Romeo and Juliet performance I’d seen. I had thus expected a modernised version of the first part of the Henriad, but the costumes were very much old-school: gowns for the monarchs, and rags for the commoners. This paradox did not unsettle me; rather, it was a joy to see these youths clad in such attire, which contributed to the maturity of their performances as a whole.

Ellis Hopkins made for a commendable King Richard, evincing comic elements that I did not know the role possessed. He nailed the King’s capriciousness, and his performance conveyed all the pomp and pomposity required for the part. He did a splendid job portraying the indecisive monarch, and excelled in the infamous deposition scene, when he reluctantly handed the ‘hollow crown’ to the Machiavellian Bolingbroke (played by Joe Munn).

Perhaps the most mature performance in this production came from Aled Gomer as John of Gaunt. He has the potential to become a fine adult actor, I think, and his delivery of Gaunt’s beloved speech, beginning ‘Methinks I am a prophet new inspired’, was notable not only for its excellent pacing and diction, but also Gomer’s lyrical Welsh accent. Other remarkably mature performances include Cait Thomas as Queen Isabel, particularly in the garden scene, which displays Shakespeare at his metaphorical best, and Charlotte Brokenbrow as the Duchess of York, interceding on behalf of her son. I was particularly impressed by Manon Clarke, who played Surrey and Green; she had great stage presence and was remarkably confident in her delivery. The cast as a whole did an excellent job, and it was a real joy to see them tackle Shakespeare’s text so dexterously.


The play was well trimmed, and certainly did not make for an ‘unweeded garden’ in terms of pacing. Sarah Bawler ensured that all of the key themes of Shakespeare’s play were brought out, and all the key moments, in terms of narrative, were conveyed successfully to the audience. There was even time for a jig at the end of the play, in one of the best choreographed bow sequences I’ve seen on stage.


Before the play, I had been beleaguering a colleague’s ears about the state of Shakespeare studies, particularly the fragile attributions forthcoming (either giving Shakespeare what he doesn’t own, or taking away chunks of works he wrote), such as the ascription of large parts of the Henry VI trilogy to Christopher Marlowe; the assignation of parts of Titus Andronicus and All’s Well That Ends Well to Thomas Middleton, and, in the teeth of objectively verifiable evidence, but the result of remarkable rhetorical legerdemain, the inclusion of Thomas Kyd’s Arden of Faversham in Shakespeare’s canon. By the end of this performance, these details seemed about as trivial as they must to the readers of this review. It matters little what goes on behind scholarly scenes when children can engage with Shakespeare’s text on stage in this way. I should imagine that the rehearsal process, and the performance itself, was a real education that I hope will settle in their hearts and minds forever. It was certainly an education for this reviewer, and a wonderful theatrical experience.

Photography:  Keith Stanbury





July 22, 2016


Darren Freebury-Jones



I must confess that I find it rather difficult to get excited about productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy of love, Romeo and Juliet. The play is one of the bard’s biggest hits, and it tends to get put on very frequently, at the expense of some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, like, say, his collaboration with George Peele, Titus Andronicus, or his Coriolanus. It also gets put on at the expense of many other great early modern tragedies, such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, (his contested) Arden of Faversham, and his original Elizabethan love-tragedy, Soliman and Perseda; or Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays and The Jew of Malta; not to mention the tragic works of John Marston, John Webster, and sundry others. That said, I have no qualms about Everyman selecting this much-loved classic in order to show off the marvellous talent they have at their disposal. But if you’re going to select a sacred cow, you’d better bring it to pastures new…

And that’s exactly what the directors Mark Modzelewski and Jack Paterson have done. The play began with myriad voices, the prologue incantatory, with vivid tableaus. From the off, I could perceive that Everyman were going for something quite different with this production: they were going to deliver all the great moments in Shakespeare’s play that have been adored for centuries, but they were also going to keep it fresh, with visceral emotion and raw intensity between the warring houses. Many speeches were split between characters, giving more of an ensemble feel, and Benvolio, a role I once played myself, had suddenly become two characters, aptly named Ben (played by Edward Kettle) and Volio (Stephanie Smith). All this made for a Romeo and Juliet that delivered the classic moments and the adulated lines, but mixed things up with great success. If I have one criticism, it is that I felt the cast could have made more of the humour in the first half of the play. What I enjoy most about Shakespeare’s text is the dichotomy between the comedic first half and the despairing second half, engendered by Mercutio’s death. Whether the directors had decided to rein in the comedy for the sake of eliciting emotive responses from the audience, or whether the fact that this was the first night meant the cast were less likely to take risks, I’m not sure. That said, Cari Barley did an excellent job in the Senecan role of the Nurse (however, this part can also be found in Arthur Brooke’s poem, which served as a source for Shakespeare), in the scene when Juliet entreats her to offer information about Romeo’s marriage proposal.

What about the lovers themselves? Mikey Howe made for an eminently likeable Romeo, who demonstrably grew in confidence as the play progressed, and will hit his stride as the production continues, I’m sure. He really nailed the youthful naivety, amorousness, and despair of the protagonist. As for Juliet, I must concede that, in the vast majority of productions I’ve seen, the actress does a poor job. Juliet, if not played right, can come across as a whiney, obstreperous teenager, thus obliterating any invested emotion on the part of the audience. Helen Randall, however, made for a beautiful Juliet, both inside and out, a captivating bright angel whenever she was on stage, with pitch-perfect delivery of Shakespeare’s pentameter lines, perfect diction, wry humour, and understated despair. She was indubitably the finest Juliet I’ve seen on stage and had wonderful chemistry with her Romeo.


The cast did a great job overall, from the snarling Tybalt (played by Asha Cecil), to the loveable ghostly father, Friar Laurence (played by James Pritchard), and the excellent Jon Barnes as Mercutio. Barnes’s Mercutio was the ideal blend of loveable cad and dangerous ally, and his death was very touching and ushered in the woeful downfall of Juliet and her Romeo. The creative ensemble were also superb, and were integral to the success of the play. The directors evidently allowed the cast to improvise in rehearsal, to experiment, and some moments, such as Romeo’s encounter with the Apothecary, were visually and audibly stunning. Too often reviewers focus solely on the ‘leading’ actors, without acknowledging the hard work of the supporting cast, who provide the very foundations for performance and are crucial to the quality of a play. I must mention Tom Roderick in particular; he listened and responded intently and aptly to every line of the play, and his ability to react, and to invest himself in each unfolding moment, was commendable.


Nature is above art, a doctrine Shakespeare himself imparts in King Lear, and the outdoor surroundings really contributed to this production. The clock would strike on the most portentous moments, such as Mercutio’s demise, and sometimes it was hard to discern between artificial sirens and real police cars zipping through Cardiff. One particular highlight was the moment that Romeo prepared to kill himself. A flock of seagulls screamed in protest, like the figurative raven from the anonymous The Tragedy of Richard III that Shakespeare parodied in Hamlet, singing not, but screeching for revenge. Indeed, the cast’s deep sighs added more clouds to the ominous lazy-pacing clouds that converged on the production.


Lastly, I must praise the fight scenes, which really had the audience on the edge of their seats. Some of the blows were incredibly realistic, as one might expect from a production with the super talented Simon Riordan as Assistant Director. All in all, this was a solid production, with a marvellous cast, perfectly directed (and well edited, might I add! It was a brisk piece of engrossing entertainment), that dispelled any gripes I had about the potentiality of this production being same-old.

Once again, I say bravo Everyman; this company never fails to delivery high-quality productions, and I am particularly excited to review the eyases performing Richard II on Sunday.

Romeo and Juliet runs from 21 July – 30 July at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff.

Photography:  Keith Stanbury




Open Air Theatre Festival in Cardiff: Shakespeare, 21-30, July

July 18, 2016



Everyman Theatre is back in Cardiff for the Open Air Festival.

Their Shakespeare productions include:

Richard II, 24th, July, 2016

Everyman Youth Theatre are delighted to return to the Open Air Theatre Festival this summer to perform Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard II. Running time is approximately 90 minutes including an interval.

Romeo and Juliet, 21-30th, July, 2016

Everyman Theatre are delighted to welcome directors Mark Modzelewski and Jack Paterson to our Open Air Theatre Festival and the depiction of Shakespeare’s classic tale of “star-cross’d lovers”, forbidden love and blind passion is a tale of firsts.  Swept away in their first love, teenagers Romeo and Juliet irresistibly drawn to each other, fall in love and marry in secret as their families’ long standing feud comes to a head.  When you are passionately in love, nothing else matters – not even life itself.  Defying the hatred and violence surrounding them, they dare to believe they can, and must, be together.

In modern Verona, violence erupts between the Montagues and Capulets with tragic consequences.  With the death of their children, the citizens come together and through song, movements and story examine how they came to such tragedy.

Find out more.






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