Review: Globe on Tour’s Merchant of Venice at Cambridge Arts Theatre - devilish casting that fails to create a spell

Sarah Finigan as Shylock and Russell Layton as Antonio in The Globe on Tour's Merchant of Venice

Sarah Finigan as Shylock and Russell Layton as Antonio in The Globe on Tour's Merchant of Venice - Credit: Archant

It seems that The Globe is so utterly bored with Shakespeare’s plays that it will do anything to amuse itself, regardless of whether that results in something entertaining for the paying public.

The Globe on Tour’s Merchant of Venice currently playing in rep at Cambridge Arts Theatre with The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, with eight actors playing all the parts in all three plays, has age-blind casting as well as gender-blind.

So we have Portia (who Shakespeare describes in the script as “an unschooled girl” and is probably about 15) played by a woman, albeit glamourous, old enough to be her granny.

Equally, the ages of a blind father and his son are reversed so the young man plays the older and vice-versa.

It’s all highly distracting. And if the audience isn’t allowed for one minute to forget they are watching A PLAY, then the actors certainly don’t. It’s as if you have wandered in on a drama school exercise.

Still, it’s not the actors’ fault when you get a director with ideas he thinks are interesting: let’s just throw everything up in the air and see where it lands. Let’s try it out in the provinces where it doesn’t matter.

There are some potentially good performances here. Luke Brady is a charming Bassanio, with a graceful and natural performance. But then he has the advantage of playing an attractive young man when he is one. Cynthia Emeagi as both Shylock’s daughter Jessica and the Prince of Morocco gave strong portrayals as both.

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It could have worked wonderfully having Shylock played by a woman. Women in the middle ages did run businesses and Sarah Finigan makes sense of the role and brings a lot of humanity to it. If the other characters had been cast with sensitivity instead of for devilment, hers would have been allowed to be a stand-out performance. As it was, it was lost in the sea of self-conscious, stylised, swaggering that was all around her.

This play has poetry, pathos and humour. That comes across even in a production like this when you spend most of the time wincing. But it was an effort to try to concentrate on the lines when the direction seemed designed to distract you from them. As Portia says: “Nothing is good without respect.”