The Merchant of Venice in Cardiff: A Quick Review

February 13, 2012

I was lucky enough to catch The Merchant of Venice at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff last Saturday. Here’s a quick review.

The Programme Note begins poignantly:

“This is a funny old play – though perhaps more funny peculiar than funny ha ha. The history of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Nazi atrocities, means that we view the play from an angle Shakespeare could not have anticipated or intended.”

The production brought a new verve and brittle dynamism to one of Shakespeare’s often performed plays. It was unashamedly modern. Happy to take what it wanted from the text and play with it, the performance occasionally intercepted the letter but kept to the spirit of the play. This bore fruit in the confidence of the dialogue and staging. Nearly everyone wore business suits, reminding the audience that finance was not just a social concern for those on the Rialto four hundred years ago.

The twelve-strong cast used the stage of the Richard Burton Theatre with great assurance. Adam Skeats nearly stole the show with a charming and ridiculous Launcelot Gobbo, pandering to the audience whenever he could. However, Shakepeare’s “comedy” is rarely just about laughs. James Peake balanced his portrayal of Shylock on a knife-edge: part stop-at-nothing revenger and part isolated scapegoat. Bassanio (Eric Kofi Abrefa), with his sack of of cash during the court case, belonged in the world of Plan B – Gratiano (Dafydd Llyr Thomas) might have been Ben Drew. Gillian Saker’s Portia, with her side-kick Jessica Hayles as a fun-loving Nerissa, confidently arranged proceedings, becoming a cruel puppet master over Shylock after her endearing behaviour earlier on in the play.

Rain fell over the stage sporadically in a strip from the heavens promising disappointments and perhaps a sinister cleansing. Besides this, the play’s staging incorporated a number of innovations that worked to make the audience part of the play’s action. After the interval, the Duke, with his assistants, presided over the law court, judging from high up in the upper circle of the theatre. Strip-lights and microphones descended for Shylock and an introverted unflinching Antonio (Edward Killingback) centre stage, while Shylock himself entered with clinical tools on a hospital trolley for his surgical procedure. This staging included the audience terribly, making them potential witnesses to a murder, and awkwardly complicit in the bullying of Shylock.

Jamie Garven’s direction of The Merchant of Venice brought intelligence and vigour to a profoundly disturbing play. The performance managed to be “funny peculiar” and, at times, “funny ha ha”, but its final moments brought the play to an unexpected finale. After the corny celebrations in Belmont, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (the petite Non Haf) was left caught in the rain in her little yellow Mac. Not singing, but dumbfounded. She stood silently alone onstage, looking at the letter which had told Belmont of her father’s financial and human collapse.

Robert Smith’s single muted trumpet played with a Miles Davies world-weariness, providing the soundtrack to the play – memorably an uncannily appropriate “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Like the music, the play was stylish and often moody, but it begged the audience to reflect on who and what belongs in “our” society.

Johann Gregory (Cardiff University)



The Merchant of Venice played from Feb 7th until Feb 11th, 2012.

The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama:


Images from:


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