“In christening shalt thou have two godfathers,” Shylock is told, before his forced conversion to Christianity at the end of The Merchant Of Venice. This perplexingly misguided production from the new Cracked Shakespeare theatre company seems determined to take that line literally: it moves Shakespeare’s courtroom scene, and only the courtroom scene, to the world of the Godfather movies… and it does the whole thing twice.
The fundamental concept, of relocating Venice to New York and re-imagining Antonio’s trial as a Mafia kangaroo court, might once have held some life. But stripping the scene of any surrounding narrative leaves it mortally wounded, while shockingly poor execution delivers the final blow. Many of the lines were inaudible; key moments were rendered invisible because characters were on the floor; one actor, despite changing roles mid-play, impersonated Al Pacino the whole way through.
For a brief period in the first scene – when Shylock appears inexplicably dressed in Arab headgear, and Portia speaks in an accent so ostentatiously terrible she might be auditioning for Allo Allo – I felt I had the measure of what was going on. Clearly, I thought, it’s a riff on The Producers; any minute now they’ll tip us a knowing wink, and we can all start laughing at a purposefully awful spoof. But no. There is no great moment of revelation, no hint of my longed-for turn-around. The humour remains firmly at a level where “This is more than you are due, Jew” is considered a funny line.
And then, right in the middle of what appears to be a plot twist, an actor freezes; two other characters have a brief and meaningless dialogue about the role of the author, and the whole thing begins again. A change in accents suggests we’re now in the Deep South, but exactly what we’re doing there is anyone’s guess. Actors swap roles, and we’re treated to a comparatively straightforward rendering of Shakespeare’s script – but the performances, I’m afraid, are every bit as bad.
If I squint hard enough, I can perhaps make out a theme of turning the tables: a subversive surprise at the end of the first scene might have had somewhere to go. And Neil James’s foppish Antonio is amusing enough, albeit a little hard to believe as a character who’s fighting for his life. These, though, are scant consolations, amidst what’s a fundamentally confused and thoroughly self-indulgent play. Its run is over now – time for it to sleep with the fishes.