COMPARE and contrast: a familiar exercise for students to encourage them to look closely at texts and find for themselves ideas and themes that they might have missed first time round. A double bill such as was provided by King’s Company invited just such speculation, and I had approached the evening with curiosity as to how the combination would work.

Of course, I should have known better. Nick Huntington, Director of Drama and Theatre at King’s Ely, had done an absolutely superb job of abridging both plays, keeping faith with Shakespeare’s words throughout but with no loss of the intricate and essential threads of the plots. This was a huge task and I applaud him for the time it will have taken and the skill with which he achieved it. Also, the sheer pace of both plays never let up (more below) and this also contributed to such an endeavour being possible in a single evening. (The performance I attended was its second night, and yet the energy still buzzed. I understand there was to be an examination assessment next day for some of the performers. The Easter holidays will not come a day too soon for them!)

Compare and contrast. There were many superficial comparisons to be made: the use of disguise and masks, the device of windows at night, the testing of love, the contrast of comic yokels with aristocratic main players, misunderstandings and misconceptions being overturned with unrealistic but satisfying rapidity. More profoundly, however, what united our two plays was the Shakespearean hallmark of combining potential tragedy with comedy, a feature of many of his earlier plays.

Both our plays have the potential for tragedy. Less credible, perhaps, Much Ado’s plot of a virtuous woman ‘dying’ due to calumny was to return in the late play of A Winter’s Tale while The Merchant contains very serious (and still highly relevant) issues of anti-Semitism and the precarious uncertainty and transitoriness of money. Real life contains both tragedy and comedy – “All the world’s a stage” – and real comedy, now as then, will often contain moments sadness or seriousness as a foil for its escapist enjoyment and high spirits.

A further important link is that both plays feature strong women. It is always the case that there are many dutiful, submissive or necessarily subservient women in Shakespeare. Again, that was and is life. It is often hard to make such women interesting on stage. Yet Harriet Cheseldene-Culley (Nerissa in The Merchant) and Lydia Goff (Hero in Much Ado) succeeded in doing just this. They were right inside their characters and both were commanding and convincing in their own right, with flashes of wit and appropriate deportment for their different social classes. Grace Curcio as Jessica, Shylock the Jew’s daughter, had a difficult role to play, but in her crystal-clear diction and beautiful dark costume, she exhibited in words and appearance the life of an outsider (however rich) in a confidently prejudiced and exclusive society. Hero’s maids in Much Ado, Ursula (Grace Owen) and Margaret (Florence Nell), were appropriately pert and carefree, the latter seemingly a gullible pawn in the plot against Hero, the former more senior and entrusted with helping Hero to lure Beatrice into believing Benedick loves her. These women were significant within their domestic situations but had little status in the outside world amongst the men.

The two powerful women in both plays were magnificent. Much Ado’s Beatrice was played by Stella Bluck. It is very hard to believe that Stella is only in Year 11. Her stage presence was instantaneous and her handling of the gradual development of her character was astonishing. Her control of the sheer volume of words was impressive in itself, and her understanding of her character’s high-spirited wit carried the audience with her in this, despite its four centuries of distance from us; but that Stella managed to convey by the end that all this was a kind of emotional immaturity of a highly intelligent, articulate young woman who couldn’t manage to find her way out of this stage into something more mature was extremely impressive. Stella understood that Beatrice’s speed in latching onto the excuse to release her feelings for Benedick revealed that she was now ready to admit them, and her concern for her cousin Hero’s faint in Act IV showed underlying warmth and spontaneous sympathy. Thankfully, Shakespeare understood that she didn’t have to sacrifice her verbal sparring and high spirits on the altar of matrimony.

Elizabeth Carberry was Portia in The Merchant. Like Beatrice, this role comes with high expectations, and she too excelled. As with Stella Bluck, it was very hard to believe that Elizabeth was only in Year 11. Like Beatrice, the part of Portia calls for the mastery of a great number of lines and Elizabeth conveyed them with confident understanding and clarity. She commanded the stage with a natural authority and got inside her character with total conviction. Portia’s readiness to find a daring and controversial way round the desperate situation confronting the friend of her new husband shows not just a feistiness of character but also a boldness of intellectual imagination in the breaking of contemporary convention. Her aristocratic background provided her with confidence, of course, but she acted instantly. Her quick-thinking also showed in her hint to Bassanio regarding the lead casket and in her ostensible outrage in the delicious showdown with the rings at the end. All this was expertly handled by Elizabeth. I have nothing but admiration for both these superb young actresses.

Portia, Nerissa and Jessica in The Merchant all dressed – temporarily – as men for the purposes of plot, but the evening also provided female students taking on major male roles. Florence Morgan and Tabitha Udy in Much Ado are both to be commended for the full-on, committed and consistent way they adopted their characters. Katherine Hunter would have been impressed, I am sure. Both confidently commanded the stage and sustained their roles absolutely convincingly. Florence Morgan as Leonato was unquestionably the pater familias, generous and jovial, firmly authoritative and with a strong man’s protective adoration of his pretty little daughter, now an elegant young woman, Hero. Tabitha Udy was Don John, the professed villain who (like Iago in this respect) had no excuses for his “motiveless malignancy”. Not an easy character to play, but Tabitha revelled in his badness and strutted, prowled and schemed, chain smoking the while in her natty army uniform.

Kathryn Sudbury was the director of Much Ado and had elected to set the play in 1940s France. This allowed for the military uniforms, period dresses, nostalgic accordion music and café style setting, while utilising the revolve from before the interval to provide varying walkways and the necessary bower or hiding places. Don Pedro (Taku Gomera) and Claudio (Alfie Peckham) played their important parts well and looked trim and handsome in their uniforms. Benedick the rebel, however, managed to look amusingly dishevelled in his. Freddie Bowles was a splendid Benedick. He mastered the lines with apparent ease and understanding, and established a warm and close rapport with the audience as well as the other characters. His facial and physical comedy was a treat (eg the garden scene which included setting fire to the shrubbery with his cigarette) while his love for Beatrice at the end was deeply felt, despite his war of wits with her from the outset.

Smaller but essential parts were played by Nicholas Denny as Leonato’s brother Antonio, chin adorned (like his brother’s) with a neat white goatee, but clearly under the shadow of his larger-than-life elder brother. Presumably Beatrice had inherited her spirit from her (? deceased) mother! At any rate, Nicholas was consistent and entirely credible, surrounded as he was by these more overbearing relations. Amelia Merrick as the Friar, was poised and contained, seemingly unflustered by the lengthy exposition of her plan for the ‘death’ scheme (cf Romeo and Juliet). Francesca Bisson, another gender-crossing actress, as Conrade, and Orlando Squires as Borachio, were followers of Don John, with Borachio the greater villain of the pair being ready and willing to do Don John’s dirty work for a large fee. Jack Grinstead and Emily Hamilton-Bing relished their antics and verbal malapropisms (not easy to deliver) as Dogberry and Verges respectively; Grace Owen, Ella Pickles and Elliot Bord completed the comic line-up of the Watchmen who fortuitously apprehended the villains after the night-time plot against Hero.

Turning back to The Merchant, the world of 17th century Venice was conveyed by a superb backdrop of a contemporary etching of the mercantile quarter beside the Rialto Bridge. It was lit very skilfully, independently from the stage lighting. The three main characters of this world were Antonio, the Christian merchant, Bassanio, his young friend, and Shylock, the Jew. These roles were all given commanding performances and the individual characters came through well. The sheer pace of the production gave exciting momentum to the plot, but inevitably some of the nuance of character had to be sacrificed. However, the confidence of the acting by Oakley Carr, Jamie Layfield and William Pinto respectively was never in doubt, and these were demanding parts with long speeches to master. It is to the huge credit of all the actors in both plays, that they were not miked up, and yet were perfectly audible, which just proves that this can, and should, be done wherever possible: however gruelling the process may have been, the work on projection and articulation within the rhythm of the verse was absolutely worth its successful outcome.

Pierre Taffara-Cox captured the spirit of the happy-go-lucky Gratiano. His light, skipping walk, his bright costume, complete with raspberry tights, his merriment – all were just what his character required as a foil to the more serious or earnest characters. His getting carried off-stage at the end by his wife was one of many comic touches to remember. Lorenzo, in love with Jessica, was played by Joshua Jackson. A somewhat shadowy character in the text, he enabled several aspects of the plot to work and was a reliable performer when his scenes with the young Venetian gallants or with Jessica came along. Similarly, Peter Lonsdale (Salanio) and Alex Scarborough (Salarino) did sterling work in supporting major characters, providing necessary information and furthering the plot. Alex doubled as the Duke in the trial scene, imposing a Bercow-esque order on the unruly court, while Peter doubled as the Prince of Arragon in the casket scene. Both Peter and Ben Kittoe as the Prince of Morocco hammed up their princely roles in a way that I had not seen done before. Their enjoyment of their moments in the spotlight (both as characters and as actors) was infectious and greatly appreciated by the audience. Ben’s other role as Tubal, Shylock’s fellow merchant, was a complete contrast in the dim, narrow alleys of Venice. Finally, the comic characters of Launcelot Gobbo (George Jobe) and Old Gobbo, his father (Elliot Bord) were both taken by Year 9 actors, and I hope we shall be seeing more of them in future productions.

There was another ‘character’ in this evening’s production, namely the revolve. It was an amazing piece of technical construction designed by Patrick Carberry (a talented family!) and was many months in construction. Made in five linkable sections, on a rising spiral, it was used with great imaginative versatility by the directors of both plays. It could usefully create varying heights, rooms, barriers, be decorated with greenery for garden or bower, and enabled the dispensing of set furniture other than a few benches, chairs or cafe tables. It also facilitated sophisticated overlapping scene changes and a tremendous forward momentum. The rehearsals must have been a nightmare, but the end results were seamless. The players were always ready to move into their scenes instantly. Two plays in one night was an ambitious project and would have been impossible without Good Signior Revolve.

Thanks to the revolve, there were for me two unforgettable images at the start of The Merchant of Venice: the first of Portia standing like an icon on the highest section of the revolve, bathed in a golden spotlight from above, while Bassanio was describing her to Antonio down below in the darker streets of Venice. The other, its complement, was of Bassanio in his rich brown satin costume, high like a god, as Portia and Nerissa discussed Bassanio as the favourite among the many suitors. Indeed, all the Tudor costumes were sumptuous and magnificent. As in Shakespeare’s day, when there was little or no scenery, the eye feasted on costumes instead and allowed the words and costumes to fuel the imagination. However, four centuries on we can have the best of both worlds, and indeed we had just that, with superb lighting and sound to contribute their magic to make for an engrossing and entertaining evening of drama. Nobody who saw these productions could accuse the Bard of being “boring”! Thank you to everyone involved, both on and back stage, for all their hard work, and many congratulations on two such wonderful productions.

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