One can get obsessed with a particular work of art and I confess that obsession is the only way to describe my relationship to The Merchant of Venice. I have directed it twice professionally (the RSC and Birmingham Rep), twice at drama schools (LAMDA and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School) and taught and lectured on it often. When working on select scenes with students at the London Drama Studio (Ealing) it began to occur to me that there was an inner play about a small network of relationships that was the core of the bigger play that wrestles with huge themes of Justice and Mercy, Marriage and Money, Race and Class, and it is this inner core, essentially about the tortured nature of Love, that my production for Shakespeare in Italy will focus on.
Antonio loves Bassanio in a tortured way because he struggles to understand the true nature of his feelings and has no idea either how to express them or whether they will ever be reciprocated. Bassanio loves Portia but is tortured by how real that is when weighed against his desperate need of her money to repay his debts to a man he also loves, Antonio! Portia loves Bassanio but is tortured by the terms of her dead father's bizarre will that dictates her marital future turns on the outcome of a crazy-seeming lottery. The conversation of the lovers before Bassanio makes his choice turns around the metaphor of them both being on the rack, the Elizabethan torturers instrument of choice. Shylocks torture, apart from his foul treatment by the Christians of Venice, is the death of his adored wife Leah and the duplicity of his daughter. My version of the play, which I have called A Merchant of Venice, excludes much that is well known, to focus on just six key characters whose entangled loves, desires and fortunes hinge on better understanding of themselves and their relation to each other in the blackly comic world of a modern Venice, the sublime and terrible Serenissima.
Bill Alexander January 2020
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