Theatre: Pocket Merchant, Propeller  

Review by Edna Hobbs

Propeller is a company that really thinks about Shakespeare and makes it relevant to modern audiences.  I’d seen their 2009 full version of The Merchant of Venice set in a prison and thought it amazing – aggressive, vicious and powerful: no taking sides, all the characters trapped in their tribes, their prejudices and all looking to get leverage over the other. It is still one of the best interpretations I’ve seen, giving the play a modern idiom. Sadly, the Pocket version is not so powerful, because it strips the story right down to the central events; one prison cage rather than a tiered jail full of caged men somehow toned down the violence. There were still really clever touches and Propeller’s stage-craft is always brilliant, but maybe they were too mindful of playing to a younger audience.

What I did enjoy was the Q&A session with the actors after: they were really interesting and likable: I asked why a ‘pocket’ version and they explained it was essentially to get teens interested; a ‘trailer’ to make them want to see the full play.

It was clear from the audience reaction and the later questions that Antonio’s spitting at Shylock ‘for real’ was a big shock: as the cast pointed out, he says some pretty terrible things too…

The cast tried to give insightful answers to all the questions, including the howlers: ‘How does it feel playing to a half empty theatre?’ Ouch! There were two school groups and about 10 adults in the audience! But the classic for me was: ‘Why did you decide to focus on the anti-semitic theme of the play rather than the love story?’

The bottom line is: definitely worth seeing, but go for Propeller’s full version.

Education packs are available from the company’s website.