The Merchant Of Venice

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until August 1

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The Importance Of Being Earnest

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 16

Reviewed by Mark Brown

It is impossible, it need hardly be said, to stage Shakespeare's troubling but brilliant play The Merchant Of Venice in the 21st century without considering the odious history of modern, racial anti-Semitism. The vicious Judeophobia of the Bard's day considered the Jews to be religious misbelievers and "God killers", whereas the later, pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism of the likes of the German Nazis and, indeed, as we were reminded recently, Britain's own King Edward VIII, saw them as a dangerous and inferior "race".

This shift, from religious persecution to genocidal racial hatred, hangs menacingly above any new production of the play. It came into focus sharply and unexpectedly during Tuesday night's performance in Glasgow's Botanic Gardens.

A shiver ran down my spine during the famous court scene, in which the Jewish moneylender Shylock (played with an excellent, measured dignity by Kirk Bage) is denied his pound of the flesh of the Jew-baiting merchant Antonio (performed with an unusual, bisexual informality by the ever-impressive Alan Steele). I was shocked to hear a significant proportion of the audience laughing along with the Judeophobic triumphalism of Ben Clifford's exuberant, young Gratiano (a friend of the recently imperilled merchant).

My fellow theatregoers were not, I suspect, expressing some kind of deep-seated anti-Semitism, so much as forgetting themselves in an instinctive association with a character's mirth. It was a chilling moment, nonetheless.

Director Gordon Barr's thoughtful production seems almost to have anticipated this. At the play's close, as the braying Christians congratulate her on her role in her father's downfall, Stephanie McGregor's contemplative Jessica (daughter of Shylock) sings a sombre, Hebrew song, reconnecting her powerfully with her religious and cultural heritage and, indeed, with her persecuted father.

It is a moment of simple brilliance which, more than Gillian Argo's functional but unlovely set (all concrete and scaffolding) or the costumes and music (both from the early 20th century), makes this a memorably modern production of Shakespeare's most politically challenging play.

The political challenge of Oscar Wilde's great comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the British establishment. Is there a more loathsome comic monster in world theatre than the unlikely matchmaker Lady Bracknell, an excessively snobbish old Tory who opposes education for the lower orders as it "would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square"?

His invention of Bracknell says as much about the real Wilde as does his enduring Irish republicanism and his authorship of the Corbynite pamphlet The Soul Of Man Under Socialism. Just as the Irish dandy was an unlikely revolutionary in a velvet smoking jacket, so The Importance Of Being Earnest is a satirical iron fist clad in a reassuring satin glove.

Indeed, reassurance is the order of the day in Richard Baron's fine production for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Everything, from the impeccable cast to designer Ken Harrison's opulent period costumes and set (a perfect combination of neo-classicism, orientalism and William Morris-style decor), dovetails with the drama's comic commentary on hypocrisy.

The play is, to a great extent, about the chasm between the upper classes' keeping up of appearances and their real motivations and behaviours. It requires, therefore, an ostentatious young actor in the role of its chief protagonist, the pampered playboy Algernon Moncrieff.

Although he overdoes the hair tossing and housecoat swishing early on, the aptly named Gavin Swift does a superb job of embodying the louche aristocrat who deceives his way into the affections of the not-so-innocent 18-year-old Cecily Cardew. The effervescent young rascal would be nothing, however, without a hideous Lady B, and Margaret Preece is abundantly, and delightfully, dreadful.