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The Merchant of Venice review at Stafford Castle – ‘a mesmerising performance elevates an unexciting production’

Linal Haft in The Merchant of Venice at Stafford Castle
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This is the first time in its 29-year history that Stafford Borough Council’s annual Shakespeare festival has featured The Merchant of Venice. However, despite a brilliantly mesmerising portrayal of Shylock by Linal Haft, it hasn’t been worth the wait.

Director Oliver O’Shea has chosen to set the story not in Venice but in 1950s New York in order, he says, to better explore ever-present prejudices, not least those of anti-Semitism, but the switch adds little to this competent, if somewhat routine production.

With the historic castle ruins masked by Lizzy Leech’s austere set, the production feels as if it could just as easily have been staged in the comfort of Stafford’s Gatehouse Theatre.

The action starts in a chrome and plastic diner, with the accompaniment of police sirens to remind us that we are in America, while Leech’s realistic-looking tenement block provides a brooding backdrop throughout. But the production does not employ American accents.

Jessica Hardwick is a delightful and convincing Portia and there are strong performances too from the likes of James MacNaughton and Thom Petty as Lorenzo and Antonio, but Kate Roche is over-the-top as an unfunny Lancelot Gobbo.

The courtroom scene, which ought to provide real drama, is somewhat wasted here, generating little tension. Fortunately the concluding revelations ensure a satisfactory finale.

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Largely unexciting staging of Shakespeare’s play elevated considerably by a sure-footed Shylock