This is Shakespeare at its best (The Merchant of Venice, Stamford Shakespeare Company, Tolethorpe Hall)

The Merchant of Venice from Stamford Shakespeare Company.
The Merchant of Venice from Stamford Shakespeare Company.

It doesn’t get much better than this I thought, as I joined the punters on the lawn at Tolethorpe Hall. Cloudless blue skies, burgeoning greenery, families and friends tucking into their picnics, and a significant number of young people in among the ‘silver foxes.’

Actually it did get better, as we filed into the permanent marquee that’s the Stamford Shakespeare Company’s auditorium. Before us was a sun-kissed open-air set. Two medieval house fronts with seven steps between them leading to a dome-shaped pergola, and even a little canal in the foreground. For this was The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s most glorious plays.

It’s the story of Antonio the merchant whose commercial ventures go wrong so that he can’t pay back the loan that Shylock the Jewish moneylender has provided for him. But this richest of plays contains more than that.

There is young love, in which three very real couples are involved and which inspires some of Shakespeare’s finest lyric poetry.

There are the comic suitors seeking the hand of the heroine Portia.

And there’s plenty of banter between the sexes, with Portia and her maid Nerissa manipulating their menfolk with consummate ease.

There’s also a trial scene which brings all the main characters together and which was the highlight of this production. At first Shylock, played with increasing authority by Mick Franklin, is adamant that he’ll carry out his lawful right to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. While as Antonio Richard Byron White is always sympathetic, conveying his ever-increasing dread that Shylock will carry out his threat.

The play’s hero Bassanio and his friend Gratiano are played with virility and vigour by Luke Mangion and Jeremy Goldthorp and intercede on Antonio’s behalf but without success.

His fate approaches inexorably and Shylock’s knife is raised above Antonio’s heart when Portia intervenes. In the star performance of the evening Lucy Thornton-Reid is commanding whenever she’s on stage but never more than in this climactic scene.

Beautifully dressed in silvery gowns at the start and end of the play, in this scene she’s disguised as Balthasar, a young and learned lawyer. Pointing out that Shylock can take the pound of flesh but not one drop of blood, she brilliantly upsets his designs and then gradually strips him of his wealth.

Later, aided and abetted by Bex Key as Nerissa, she’s equally successful in bringing Bassanio and Gratiano to heal.

In the final magical moments of this production the lovers move off into a golden sunset and Shylock turns Christian.

review: Joe Conway

The Merchant of Venice, Stamford Shakespeare Company, Tolethorpe Hall, June 12 - August 4