George Kan gives many layers to the character of ShylockJohannes Hjorth

Upon walking into Pembroke’s newly revamped New Cellars, the distinct lack of set in the room, barring three white backing panels gives out a sense of nervousness. A cursory glance around the studio space tells us that this set is unlikely to be added to or transformed throughout this play. Immediately then, Emma Wilkinson’s take on The Merchant of Venice seems to be bold and - more importantly – risky: in this intimate sparse space, the actors are simply given nowhere to hide.

To be fair to the production, this is a touring show flown half way around the world and so the logistics and costs of transporting a set of much more substance to Japan and back are simply unfeasible. Yet this kind of limit normally provokes ingenuity to create something substantive in another area like lighting or sound, such as in the CAST production Much Ado About Nothing. My hopes of a repeat of this were dashed however by – in mirroring the set – underwhelming and lacklustre sound and lighting design which often made for very clunky scene changes.

Whilst this minimalism was indeed far too minimal for my liking, it really allowed the text itself and the actors performing in it to shine through. In fact, if these actors had been anything less than the talented bunch they are, this production would have fallen very flat. It is impressive then that despite this lack of production design in which to hide, the quality of the performances are overall fantastic. Kate Reid stands out as a wonderfully naturalistic Portia, at once displaying a keen sense of assertiveness (especially in the court scene) and sensitivity. Both she and Sam Oladeinde excel in the clarity of their speech and the expression of verse: a skill that is especially important in a play where the fine details make all the difference. Integral to the play is Shylock, the malcontented Jew whose demeanour ranges from bouts of rage towards Venetian anti-Semitism to a striking vulnerability towards the end of the play. George Kan eliminates all fears of a one noted Shylock and captivatingly delivers a complex emotional range, leading the audience into a state of utter pity for him in the closing scenes. 

It is a shame then that – when surrounded with such fantastic talents – Sam Grabiner’s portrayal of Gratiano and the Prince of Morocco is so tonally jarring in comparison to the rest of the play. Undoubtedly an actor of great comic potential, his heavy-handed, caricatured delivery simply did not seem to sit well with the rest of the production. 

The acting on the whole though was of a very high quality and it is this that is the great success of this production. While the lack of set could be attributed to the fact it is touring, there is no excuse for what amounts to almost no production design whatsoever. However, the excellence of the cast is indeed what carries this play and so more than makes up for what is not there. 

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