Review: Welsh National Opera’s Merchant of Venice at Mayflower Theatre

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To celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th, the Welsh National Opera come to Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre with a production of Merchant of Venice, containing sex, sexuality, gender, violence, more sex, and opera. The professional opera company debuts the show here, with tickets as low as £5, for which you get action, drama and romance for your buck, on the condition you don’t expect contextual justice.

On rather hurriedly traversing the stairs to my seat in the lower dress circle — 7pm is inconvenient for anyone wishing to gluttonise on both work and food before they rush into town for the opera — I was immediately struck by just how empty the south of England’s largest theatre could actually be. A national premier, a national opera company, the original work itself a national treasure; and where was that nation today? Having their dinner, one might presume. Nobody even seemed to mistake composer André Tschaikowsky (1935-1982) for his more renowned namesake, Pyotr. It’s probably not unfair therefore, to say that the programme was being optimistic in pre-determining this performance “hir-disgwyliedig” long-awaited (unless only by the Getty family sponsoring it). Nonetheless, the show must go on.

The Merchant of Venice is a Shakespearian play of religious contention, most famous for Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech, in which a Christian trader refutes the terms of his contract with Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who here is masterfully portrayed by Lester Lynch, returning to the role for a fourth time in his WNO debut. André Tschaikowsky uses The Merchant of Venice to analogise his personal experiences of exile, discrimination, loneliness, and heartache through its characters, themes, and locales. Openly homosexual, Jewish and poverty stricken, André was not deemed especially fit for the Nazi run Poland he grew up in, and the operatic adaptation he composed serves to personify such sensitive attributes through individual actors, carefully determined settings, and luscious sweeping melodies atop some truly harrowing discordance; his music as impressive as his biography. Delicate yet jarring, comedic yet emotive, colourful yet bold; all things the Welsh National Opera evidently attempted to extrapolate from his score… and to some extent, even succeeded.

The curtains rose to uncover the two largest filing cabinets I have ever seen, at first masquerading as walls to a psychiatrist’s office, in which pipes were smoked and Freudian couches occupied. This context dissipates instantly, not being made purposeful until the end (at which point we find that it was all a dream). They are never utilised in any way other than as a border between on-stage and off-stage, doing well however, to evoke a sense of fiscal intrigue between the main protagonist, Shylock, and the main antagonist, Antonio.

Antonio is depicted by weak counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, who made the experience all the more underwhelming when tasked with offering the first sung note. It was however, striking that Tschaikowsky opted for the use of a counter-tenor at all, making incredibly poignant the performance of camp by the character he chooses to use as an expression of his own sexuality, and an affront to the stereotypes he was beset with his entire life.

There was a gratifying humour to be derived as well, from the subtle ease with which Shylock’s rebellious daughter Portia (Sarah Castle), is able to recompense the wealthy Jew with the poverty ridden Christian through rebellious trials of sexual experimentation, and disguise. It acts too as genius relief from the vividly explicit imagery with which these facets of André’s aching soul are brought to life through gunplay, fighting, torture, sex, adultery, and pleasure, in a cacophony of simultaneous hard-watching, and playful whimsy.

This is the moment at which this musical adaptation diverts from the dramaturgical classic and proceeds to explore more subversive topics. [Spoiler Alert] Portia’s exploration of lesbianism leads her to form a bond with Nerissa that incites them to respectively indemnify their fathers through an exciting series of collaborative role-play, but sadly resulting in Shylock falling foul of his own intransigence, in a truly  powerful display of psychological destruction.

It was thus a great shame that the emotive opening, and gripping epilogue, were bridging an essentialist second act of padding and cheese, in which stereotypes were forged, and all underlying moral and meaning seemed lost. It made tenuous the entire storyline as well, by having Shylock’s insanity represented by death on breaching the fourth wall, resurrecting only to find solace in his therapist’s office; it’s as confusing as it sounds.

You could probably bestow mercy upon it, if you read the synopsis beforehand. It was a fantastic night out, but it hurt my head. Seasoned opera or Shakespeare fans may prefer Verdi’s Macbetto, running for the same period until 23rd November. Tickets for the rest of the WNO’s Shakespeare 400 tour can be purchased from their official website.

WNO’s Merchant of Venice was at Mayflower Theatre on 1 November.

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