Share |

The Trial of the Jew Shylock at the Rosemary Branch Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 17th May 2014 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

He who takes usury goes to hell,
and he who does not goes to the workhouse.

Eric Richard's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice focuses on Shylock and Antonio as bitter rivals in a battle for supremacy in the cold world of business where the winner takes it all and the loser is crushed underfoot. Race and creed are merely tools for the dominant 1% - greedy bankers, brokers, and usurers in Eric Richard's vision of today's Venice. The only thing that unites everybody in this world of extreme greed and avarice is the love for money. A very dark and dreary picture indeed.

The merchant Antonio is deeply in love with Bassanio so when Bassanio asks him for a huge amount of money(£375,000 in today's currency) to woo the rich Portia, Antonio relents. As his fortune is invested in a number of ships, he has to approach the Jewish usurer Shylock to obtain the required sum. There is no love lost between Shylock and Antonio. Although Antonio seems as gentle as a lamb, his deeply ingrained anti-semitism can surface at any given moment. Shylock is just as fanatical although in his case years of abuse can be blamed for his hatred. He gladly agrees to lending Antonio the money against a pound of his flesh, should he be unable to pay back the debt. Shylock's daughter Jessica also hates her Jewish father, which she clearly demonstrates by wearing a gigantic cross around her neck. She elopes with Shylock's assistant Lorenzo, stealing Shylock's jewels and cash. Shylock is livid with rage, worrying more about his jewels than his daughter. Meanwhile Bassanio arrives in Portia's palace to choose the correct casket and make Portia his wife - and even more important, to become rich. 

Saul Matlock as Bassanio, Joe Shefer as Antonio, Josh Jewkes as Salarino,
Lisa Sheerin as the Duke, Ashley Gunstock as Shylock -- Photo by Poetic Justice

The play has been cut down to 80 minutes and focuses on the money theme and the relationship between Antonio and Shylock which, for the most part, works well. However, some of the characters have been cut so much that there is very little left to play with. Josh Jewkes gives a good performance as Lorenzo but there is little he can do with Salarino or Tubal. Lisa Sheerin's characters are more clearly defined. She is a witty, slightly flippant Nerissa, a dignified, authoritative Duke, and a self-confident but girly Jessica. Ashley Gunstock's Shylock seems polite and businesslike but is seething with cold rage. He will not ask for sympathy nor plead with his tormentors, he is beyond that, but his "If you cut us, do we not bleed" speech shows a profound sadness. Joe Shefer's Antonio is gentle and a loving friend to Bassanio, with whom he is clearly besotted, and it is he in the end who shows some mercy to Shylock unlike Portia who first preaches mercy and then does not show any herself. Emma Lyndon-Stanford's Portia is a very strong character who will probably be the dominant partner in the relationship with the rather weak and youngish Bassanio (Saul Matlock) who clearly appreciates his wife's riches far more than her. When Antonio caresses him after winning the trial, one wonders whether this is not going to turn into a ménage à trois. 

Director Susannah Lane Bragg's selection of songs for each scene worked very well, especially Pink Floyd's "Money" featuring opening and closing cash registers to introduce Shylock's business. I was not too convinced by the decision to replace the gold, silver and lead caskets by white, red and grey filing cabinets because it takes away from the significance of the choice but since Bassanio was the only suitor shown making a choice it is probably not too important. 

An intriguing adaptation showing how relevant Shakespeare's play is today.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 1st June 2014

Rosemary Branch Theatre 
2 Shepperton Road, London, N1 3DT
Box Office: 020 7704 6665 



  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 4 years ago
    Thanks, Carolin. This is an interesting concept - to cut down a Shakespeare play and focus mostly on a single theme. Would you say this makes Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience or merely an interesting entertainment for people who are already fans of the genre?
  • Carolin Kopplin
    by Carolin Kopplin 4 years ago
    It probably makes the play more accessible.
  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 4 years ago
    I could believe that ... difficult for purists to see the work pared back but easier to understand for Shakespeare newbies ...
  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 4 years ago
    Great review as always, Carolin. Thanks
  • Carolin Kopplin
    by Carolin Kopplin 4 years ago
    "The Merchant of Venice" is a difficult play to stage. Concentrating on the money aspect is one way to deal with it.
Please login or sign up to post on this network.
Click here to sign up now.