Creation’s 2006 production of The Merchant took place in the stark courtyard of Oxford Castle and almost made a rock opera of one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most ambiguous comedies. This new version in the enchanting amphitheatre of the Said is much subtler and more rewarding, treating the text with great sensitivity and confronting its intellectual and emotional richness head-on.
It does not flinch from the play’s often brutal anti-semitism. The characters’ base prejudices are choreographed to the full: oranges are pelted, spit is hurled, curses are thrown. However, Shakespeare’s clear sympathy for Shylock sings out, not least because Jonathan Oliver accords him the grace and dignity that the other characters lack. Oliver is frequently electrifying - making music of the verse, he comes across less as villain, more as tragic hero.
That’s not to say that the comic set pieces aren’t also impressive. The casket episode is elaborated on with great panache, and not a few national stereotypes, but in a play that questions these very types this comes across as rather brilliant meta-theatre. The final scenes of argument and reconciliation between the lovers are also acted with a wonderfully natural ease. Alex Silverman’s lovely songs serenade the play to an almost magical close, though the depiction of Shylock blowing out his candles towards the end lends a heartbreaking counterpoint to the moonlit mirth. The scales here, then, don’t measure out the infamous pound of flesh so much as a perfect balance between dark and light, making this one of the most humane Merchants you are likely to see.