(Roles: Bassanio in 'Merchant' and Lysander in 'Dream')
Before going on a tour of Latin American countries and capital cities of Europe, the Shakespeare Festival Company productions of The Merchant of Venice, directed by David William, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Wendy Toye, are having a short season at the Royal, Brighton. The company is presented by the British Council in association with H.M. Tennent Productions, and is a contribution to the Shakespeare Quartercentenary celebrations. And an excellent contribution it is, too.
The productions are aptly contrasted. Both are well cast, both are produced and played in good theatrical style yet are vivid in a wider sense, and there is a magnificent Shylock by Ralph Richardson. The all-round excellence of the productions, with their special highlights, in addition to providing a glimpse of the British theatre of Shakespeare for far-away audiences should do much to eradicate the bad impression left by an Old Vic company some years ago.
David William, while giving The Merchant of Venice a compelling reality, has invested his production with the glow of many colours, sombre sometimes in Carl Toms' settings, but vital and harmonising with the changing moods and pressures of the play. This is a production that wastes not a second of time. The story, the drama that comes from it, the comedy, romance and the picture of sections of life at a certain period, move along swiftly and incisively. A lot of telling detail is skilfully and sensitively woven into the strong, main threads of the production - Shylock as a man and his inflexible determination in regard to Antonio; the Jessica and Lorenzo relationship, which is given more significance than one usually finds; the Merchant's attachment to his past, which seems to go back for centuries; and, of course, the part that Portia plays in the drama, her own romance being levelled onto a lower plane, rightly I think.
The production stands high as an example of strong, imaginative work, and there are many parts well done: yet without ill-balance it is dominated by Ralph Richardson's Shylock. In my view, this is the best performance Sir Ralph has given in Shakespeare. It has the strength as well as the moving quality of real poetry. It is a characterisation rich in human meaning and in theatrical effectiveness. Sir Ralph looks like the money-lending Jew in early middle-age, with vigour and brightness about him. But there is also a sense of something old, tired and worn. He is of the Rialto, alert and in his prime, yet indeed carries the badge of all his tribe and the ancient grudge he bears is like an aura round his proudly held head. Sir Ralph's make-up is splendid, seeming to grow out of his flesh and bones, and he wears his clothes, moves, talks, thinks, breathes as no one imaginable but Shylock. I think this is a great performance.
Barbara Jefford is a cool, controlled but compelling Portia. She looks very beautiful, speaks finely, and, when required, has a sparkling wit. Alan MacNaughton is one of the most persuasive and interesting Antonio's I have seen. Alan Howard as Bassanio, Frederick Jaeger as Gratiano, Patsy Byrne as Nerissa, Michael Bates as young Gobbo, Valerie Sarruf as Jessica, and George Howe as Salarino are also outstanding.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Wendy Toye's dancing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with charming designs by Carl Toms and Mendelssohn's music, also has Sir Ralph in fine form. He is a Bottom full of in[t]ention and surprise, and very funny indeed. The other would-be playmakers are excellent too - Anthony Sharp, Terence Lodge, Rodney Bewes, Frederick Jaeger and Michael Bates.
When I call this a dancing production, I mean that the words as well as the romantic mood seem to dance, with enchanting effect. Joe Davis's lighting helps considerably in the creation of atmosphere and in enhancing the colour in the designs.
There are spirited as well as engaging lovers in Barbara Jefford, Alan Howard, Patsy Byrne and Julian Glover, and a Puck up to the eyes in mischief by Bernard Hopkins. The sense of natural dignity and beautiful speaking of Alan MacNaughton's Theseus makes the part unusually impressive, while Phyllida Law is a striking Hippolyta.
The speaking throughout is excellent, atuned to the poetry, clean and ringing.
The Stage and Television Today, 20.2.64