The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, performed by Northern Broadsides at the Buxton Opera House, April 2004.

Ben Spiller
Sheffield Hallam University

Spiller,Ben. "Review of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, performed by Northern Broadsides at the Buxton Opera House, April 2004". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 14.1-6<URL:>.

Directed by Barrie Rutter. Designed by Emma Barrington-Binns and Guiseppe Belli. Lighting designed by Andy Wilcock. Music by Conrad Nelson. With Andrew Vincent (Antonio), Andrew Cryer (Salerio), Jonathan Le Billon (Solanio), Paul Barnhill (Bassiano), Adam Sunderland (Lorenzo), Richard Standing (Gratiano), Clare Calbraith (Portia), Sara Poyzer (Nerissa), Barrie Rutter (Shylock), Dennis Conlon (Prince of Morocco/Tubal), Andrew Whitehead (Launcelot Gobbo), Leo Atkin (Old Gobbo/Duke), Jo Theaker (Jessica), Roger Burnett (Prince of Arragon), The Late Frank Moorey (Portrait of Portia’s Father)

1.      The aesthetics and philosophy of Northern Broadsides (or, perhaps more accurately, of the company’s actor-manager Barrie Rutter) are instantly recognizable.  In fact, after having recently seen a number of Broadsides productions (of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Heywood, and Tony Harrison), a number of performance elements have formed a tick-list in my mind.  Such is the persistence of the company to place its own stamp on the classics and more recent plays that the following production decisions have become synonymous with its name:  text spoken in Northern accents; minimal set and stage properties; focus on performers and the words they speak; music newly-written by Conrad Nelson and performed by the cast; choral singing; and traditional dancing (more often than not clog-dancing).  All the Broadsides trademarks were clearly there in the most recent production (an absence of clog-dancing being the only exception and something of a surprise).  The show toured the length and breadth of the United Kingdom between February and May 2004, and played in a host of middle-scale receiving-houses and non-conventional performance spaces (another company characteristic). 

2.      The Merchant of Venice, which I caught at the Buxton Opera House approximately half-way through the tour, was a no-nonsense, fuss-free offering of one of Shakespeare’s most troubling plays (especially when considered in the context of our own contemporary culture).  Indeed, Dame Judi Dench admits to feeling troubled by the play when discussing her portrayal of Portia with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971:

I don’t think there’s anything to redeem those people, I’m afraid.  Everyone behaves appallingly, and there’s nothing for the spirit in the play – which is strange for Shakespeare … and at the end of The Merchant of Venice I couldn’t care less about anybody.  As for all that about the ring at the end, I could give Portia a good slap.  I wouldn’t ever go to see it again. [1]
3. Dame Judi is most probably alluding to the unashamedly anti-Semitic behaviour of the majority of the play’s characters, as well as to Shylock’s terrifying demand for Antonio’s pound of flesh.  It certainly appears that most attitudes in the play are underpinned by a certain degree of selfishness, including the Jewish moneylender himself (which prevents him from becoming entirely a tragic victim of Christian Venice’s religious pomposity).  As Charles Spencer, theatre critic for the Telegraph newspaper, recently reminded me, one of the most influential studies of Shylock in recent times – John Gross’ Shylock [2] – concludes that, ‘in the wake of the Holocaust, The Merchant of Venice can never seem quite the same again’. [3] Spencer goes on to quote Gross directly: ‘It is still a masterpiece; but there is a permanent chill in the air, even in the gardens of Belmont’.  However, Rutter’s Broadsides production refused to acknowledge the more problematic areas of Shakespeare’s play and instead offered a comedy with shades of potential tragedy.

4. Rutter himself, in a post-show discussion at Buxton, prided his production on its lack of political correctness.  He complained that academics and other directors had recently and all-too-often tried to shoe-horn the play into something that it is not:

You get all these productions that try to make Shylock a tragic hero, someone at odds with the society around him.  For me, that’s wrong, as he’s just as bad as the Christians who try to persecute him.  This play is a romantic comedy that gets bitter in the middle, but romance does win in the end. [4]
Mike Poulton, who composed the programme notes in the form of an article entitled ‘When is a Jewish joke not a joke?’, concurs with Rutter’s complaints about more sensitive productions and discusses the play in its own historical context: ‘In those days, the term ‘politically correct’ would have got a blank stare’. [5]  This is true, but it seems far from explaining why modern productions of The Merchant of Venice should not give audiences the opportunity to sympathise with Shylock.  Regrettably, both Rutter and Poulton appear to view the play as primarily existing in an Elizabethan vacuum, almost as if the holocaust never happened between that time and ours: such an attitude towards Shylock and the play as a whole seemingly contradicted the design of the production, which was set some time in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Trevor Nunn’s production of the play, set in the early 1930s and staged at the Royal National Theatre in the late 1990s (and released on video in 2000), acknowledged the paradox of Shylock’s character by presenting him simultaneously as wronged victim and vindictive avenger.  Rutter’s interpretation of the role (as both director and actor) verged more on the comic than on the tragic, or even tragicomic.  His approach may well have seemed at home in the Elizabethan theatre, or maybe even in a Victorian production, but the insistence on preventing audiences from sympathizing with the maltreatment of Shylock at the hands of the sneering Christians removed any sense of modernity despite the modern setting.  Rutter’s charisma, however, superceded the lack of depth in his portrayal, and I was never in doubt that this was Rutter-as-Shylock.

5.      The ‘lucid and involving’ quality of the production to which Spencer approvingly refers, for me, lay in the performances of the rest of the cast – particularly Andrew Whitehead’s genuinely funny Launcelot Gobbo, Dennis Conlon’s dapper yet absurd Prince of Morocco, Paul Barnhill’s impassioned Bassiano and Clare Calbraith’s matter-of-fact Portia – and in the hypnotically attractive music performed by members of the cast. [6]  Andrew Vincent’s Antonio, literally towering over all other cast members (he is over six feet tall), was an imposing presence yet undercut his hard-man image (shaven head and physically very fit) with a delicate delivery of speech, especially when talking with Bassiano.  The character’s potential homosexuality on the page was not alluded to explicitly here, although the final image of the two couples and Antonio alone enabled the audience to draw their own conclusions without removing the possibility that Antonio is in love with Bassiano.  The two Venetian lads-about-town, Salerio (Andrew Cryer) and Solanio (Jonathan Le Billon), were not the two spitting thugs of many recent productions but a couple of young ne’er-do-wells impeccably dressed in designer suits like all the other Christians including a wide-eyed and affable Gratiano (Richard Standing).  The night-time scene between Jessica (Jo Theaker) and Lorenzo (Adam Sunderland) was played with integrity by both performers, who ironed-out any contradictions about the two characters by ignoring their possible selfishness (particularly against Shylock’s honour) and emphasizing their mutual fascination with an all-encompassing tenderness.  The resolution of the confusion caused by the feigning of identities and the losing of love tokens was played with exaggerated movements, particularly those of Portia and Nerissa (Sara Poyzer) and, although the effect was rather amusing in the moment of the playing, the extravagant folding of arms towards and turning of backs against Bassiano and Lorenzo were strangely at odds with the less stylised movements of their earlier scenes (even when disguised as men in the courtroom scene). 

6.      I had read Judi Dench’s assessment of the play before I attended the Broadsides production and was eagerly hoping for it to be proved wrong.  Due to the seductive music that closed the performance and the overall interpretation that this is a comedy slightly tinted with tragedy, I happily forgot that Merchant is an extremely complex play with complicated views of justice on offer.  However, as I write this account and contemplate the play in relation to the production, in the light of Dame Judi’s remarks, I have to admit that the more sobering account rings true with me.  To gloss over the complexities of Shakespeare’s characterisation and view the play as more comic than tragic seems to deny the full range of potential meanings of the script to be released in performance.  While Nunn’s 1990s production firmly set the play in the 1930s, the historical context complemented his interpretation of the play as a problematic musing on the position of Jews in an increasingly Nazi-orientated world.  Nunn’s production was not politically correct, but took on board the fact that the holocaust had taken place; Rutter’s announcement that his production was not politically correct either seemed fuelled by a determination not to take the holocaust into account.  Maybe the latter approach enables audiences to make the connections between the play and the world outside the playhouse for themselves, should they wish to do so.  However, I felt that Rutter did not have anything to say about the legacy of the Nazi regime, despite his decision to set the production within the last fifty years or so (just as his Henry V last year made no overt reference to the then-current war in Iraq).  This aside, the production achieved its own aim to reclaim the play as a comedy, after critics of the latter half of the previous century have variously termed it a tragicomedy, a middle comedy and a problem play.


[1]  Dench, Judi. “A Career in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 202-04.

[2]  Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

[3]  Spencer, Charles. “Mesmerising Shylock avoids the PC trap.” Telegraph. 26 February, 2004.

[4]  Barrie Rutter, post-show discussion at Buxton Opera House, 21 April 2004.

[5]  Poulton, Mike. “When is a Jewish joke not a joke?”. From the programme notes accompanying Northern Broadsides’ The Merchant of Venice (2004).

[6]  Spencer positively beams with admiration for the directorial interpretation of the production:  ‘Not the least of the virtues of this admirably lucid and involving touring production by Northern Broadsides, which I caught at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, is that it never ties itself into knots in an attempt to be politically correct’.

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