Monday, 26 July 2010

Merchant in the cloister

Richard Wilcocks writes:
There was a tiny touch of Opera in the Park about this performance. It was July, it was outdoors, it was nearly the weekend and the couple in front of us were eating lobster washed down with Prosecco. The audience, on camping seats, was much smaller than the gigantic music-loving throng at Temple Newsam, of course, but pretty substantial for the square of lawn in the ruined cloister. Which brings me to resonance and the quality of the sound…

I think challenging is the word. I’ll stick the knife in here – a vicious thing to do with Theatre of the Dales, an undoubtedly superb bunch of performers - well-known to all at the LitFest - which deserves all the bucket loads of positive comments it normally receives – aaagh those planes! Every few minutes, they came over, on course for the airport, timing their interventions for speeches we were straining to hear anyway.

After the interval, most of the planes had arrived, but the sabotage continued: hysterical jackdaws in the tower screeched, and just as Antonio was baring his chest for Shylock to take the pound of flesh, a motorbike with some kind of sawn-off exhaust system could be heard cruising up the Kirkstall Road and back again.

You could see that it was difficult enough to project in the old cloister anyway – it might seem to be a friendly space but it isn’t a wooden O, many nuances were lost, and the actors were constantly trying hard to send the words across even without the threats from the sky. Wouldn’t it have been better to do it in the round, or simply closer to one of the walls? Or on higher staging?

Anyway, I genuinely enjoyed it as a package, along with most others: it generated plenty of momentum and was strangely satisfying because it was what people call traditional, with good-looking Renaissance gear made by students at Yorkshire Coast College. Because many in the audience, I am guessing, know this play, it was all right: we could always fall back on lip-reading. Shylock wore a yellow hat, which was authentic, and was a proper villain from four centuries ago, played most impressively by David Robertson, the heart and soul of Theatre of the Dales and a reminder that great actor-managers are still thriving.

It was delivered as a historical piece, so that we could see across the centuries and place it firmly in its context, when Renaissance Christians, following on from their Medieval counterparts, perceived the Jews, the murderers of Our Lord, as revengeful money grubbers. Violent revenge was all the rage on the stage in the late sixteenth century, and a Jewish villain must have seemed like a sure-fire device, even though Shakespeare is unlikely to have met any Jews in his life. Irish villains on the stage hadn’t really caught on in his day, in spite of nasty recurring wars in Ireland, their equivalent of our Afghanistan. I bet he met a few Irishmen.

Antonio (Stephen Anderson) should have been rather more unpleasant, although he was definitely grumpy – and melancholy of course, but it’s a hard one to crack. Is his habit of racist spitting simply conventional behaviour or a product of depression caused by the loss of his ships and merchandise? Freud might help here. Bassanio (Will Tristram) was a suitably shallow gallant with a seemingly effortless aristocratic presence. Portia (Jennifer Jordan) and Nerissa (Beth Kilburn) were most entertaining – the first like a fairly modern and hard-faced businesswoman and the second as her efficient PA in period dress.

The fairy tale section with the caskets was well split up (intelligent direction from the internationally-inclined Serge Alvarez), with an amusing Moroccan prince (Stuart Fortey) who lingered after his rejection to give Nerissa the eye. The period atmosphere was enhanced by the use of Comedia-style masks at one point. All that stuff happened in the past, didn’t it? Never again, eh? In 1938 in Berlin, the thespians of the Hitler Youth put the play on as straight anti-semitic, while in the same year their Young Communist counterparts in Moscow put it on as straight anti-capitalist. Today, if producers look for a message, it is an anti-racist one, centred on the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech. This was the implied message of this production, I think.

Serge Alvarez, who has been directing in France and England for the last couple of decades has another Shakespeare on his horizon - an adaptation of The Tempest to be performed in English, French and Spanish in Valparaíso, Chile.

 The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare performed by Theatre of the Dales at Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds on 23 July 2010

Monday, 12 July 2010

Into the woods again

Dagmar Wood was just perfect for Midsummer Night's Dream last year. Puck and various other characters could insert themselves into the interstices of a large tree, the lovers could run through real, untrimmed bushes and Titania could choose her mossy bank from the many on offer. The audience made do with plastic garden furniture. It's more of a clearing surrounded by trees and then by century-old houses than a real urban wood, and it can be found, if you are sharp-eyed, just off Grosvenor Road in Headingley.

It has become the stamping and vamping ground of the Headingley-based Theatre of the Dales (scroll down to read more about this lovely crew), which this year will be performing The Merchant of VenicePerformances will take place on the 14th, 15th, and 16th July, and at Kirkstall Abbey on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd July.