BWW Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Nelson Mandela Primary School and RSC Swan Theatre
"See it live and see it early" is the approach taken, and it could hardly be more live - the actors are in the hall with us - nor much earlier, the kids, wide-eyed, attentive and fascinated, are no more than 8 or 9 years old.
I reflected on my introduction to Shakespeare back the 70s. In a classroom looking at dense text in a book, the first words I recall hearing were not "Friends, Romans, Countrymen...", but "iambic pentameter". I was lost and, frankly, if I was, then God help some of the other kids.
Not so any more, not if you're at one of the schools into which this production tours anyway, There's evident preparation by teachers to give context to the play, but the actors explain a little about their characters and the themes as a reprise, drums are banged, flutes blown and we're swiftly transported to the dockside at Venice where cash changes hands as well as goods.
And ambitious men need money to fuel such dreams and others know that they'll pay a handsome price to borrow a few thousand ducats, until, literally, their ship comes in.
Shakespeare's tale of the Jew and the merchant, the girls and their suitors, the caskets and their riddles, doesn't suggest itself immediately as the best play to get the kids excited, but the RSC have been doing this stuff for ten years and they know what works.
This version rattles along like a clipper in full sail on the high seas, all-through in 90 minutes, forsaking none of the beauty of Shakey's language nor some of the best speeches in his canon and leaves us, as ever, with some pretty big ideas with which to grapple. Justice vs Mercy? Christian vs Jew? Lies vs Truth? It could hardly be more 2019.
The kids may not get all of that - they won't obviously - but young brains are like sponges, the knowledge and, crucially I think, the living example of the benefits of discipline and teamwork the company demonstrates, seep in and emerge, sometimes years later. Art enhances their developing worlds and, through that, ours too.
But only if it's any good, and this production is very good indeed. Shani Erez is a regal, cynical, clinical Shylock, quietly despairing at the racism she faces on a daily basis and demanding, but never er... hysterically so, her pound of flesh as justice dictates. Morgan Philpott gives his suddenly impecunoius Antonio a swiftly lost swagger - he knows he owes - and he's a broken man long before the knife rests on his skin.
If that's the heavier stuff - and I'm still outraged that Shylock gets such a bad deal, but that's antisemitism for you and at least Shakey had the decency (and courage) to engender that outrage - the lighter stuff comes with the smart girls and their not so smart would-be lovers.
Ray Sesay is blinged up and all but rapping some of his lines, tripling up as Bassanio and the other men who seek to win the hand of The Lady, but it's Yasmin Taheri as Portia and Eloise Secker as Nerissa who steal the show, one minute girlish giggles, the next duplicitous and cunning, the next delivering profound reflections on the human condition. What fun they have and how the kids loved it.
Jessica and Lorenzo, the young pair in this trio of lovers, are played by different members of the RSC's Next Generation ACT programme that gives opportunities to talented young actors who may not get the chance otherwise. Holly Stuart and Sahib Khatkar played the roles at Nelson Mandela Primary School and what an experience it must have been. I wish them well.
The production enjoys a week in the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and then goes round the country, visiting schools and theatres not within a few tube stops of The National Theatre - or the RSC. And you don't have to be a kid to see it or enjoy it.
Photo Sam Allard