A confusing but confident show

The cast of Merchant of Venice, presented by Pendle Borderline Theatre Company. (s)
The cast of Merchant of Venice, presented by Pendle Borderline Theatre Company. (s)

Pendle Borderline Theatre Company’s adaptation of The Merchant of Venice is one of their many tributes to Shakespeare’s writing.

Several have graced the stage at The Muni in Colne, each different, each memorable.

Last week’s production was set in the mid-20th Century, an interesting choice given that the “villain” of the piece is Jewish.

Riddled with contradiction, the original play is awash with themes and motifs, where selfish desire battles with a need for mercy, but at a price, and it is not easy to establish just who, in fact, is the most manipulative, or the most corrupt, as acts of kindness become acts of wilful savagery.

I struggled with some of the contradiction on stage - a period piece with some confusing role-playing. Cross-dressing occurs in the original script for a purpose: when Portia and her companion Nerissa masquerade as court clerks, twisting the law in order to rescue Antonio from the fate of paying the ultimate price for non-payment of a debt.

The success of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing achieves a display of comic pretence and is crucial to the drama. My struggle was with Portia’s suitors being women in disguise (albeit, wonderfully); it was an unwanted distraction.

This said, almost the entire large cast delivered confidently; new young faces, creating characters without a glimmer of nerves.

Without doubt there were some outstanding performances: Adrian Hartley’s superb characterisation of Shylock was faultless. I was lucky enough to be seated closely and able to witness every facial nuance, betraying Shylock’s fears, his pain and his yearning for revenge.

Punctuating the seemingly relentless anti-Semitism, love, friendship and comedy relieved the tension: James Bateman’s dependable acting skills as Gobbo were very much on show, speaking in a variety of accents – to confuse or amuse, I wasn’t sure. In fact, the varying of accents among characters were colourful throughout.

Simply staged and with lovely original music supporting some scenes, this production resonated a sincerity: it provoked questions and invited rumination on characters’ values - of their morality, and of one’s own. How far the production reinforced or opposed prejudice, would depend on the individual.