The Merchant of Venice, The Cockpit Theatre, review: ‘The audience feels complicit in the play’s creation’

Jonathan McGarrity in The Merchant of Venice. Picture: Camillla Greenwell

Jonathan McGarrity in The Merchant of Venice. Picture: Camillla Greenwell - Credit: Archant

Shake-scene Shakespeare’s cue script The Merchant of Venice is almost as much of a surprise for the cast as for the audience - and it’s a thrill

Waiting for The Merchant of Venice to start, I’m feeling nervous, so I can’t imagine how the cast are feeling. They haven’t rehearsed and they only found out who was playing which other characters two hours ago.

Shake-scene Shakespeare’s cue script production is as close as we can get to seeing theatre the way 16th century audiences would have – minus the heckling and braying (dependant on the crowd). In the Cockpit space, there’s really nowhere to hide.

Lizzie Conrad Hughes is currently the only director in the UK to be producing theatre this way. She sits in the wings, closely following the script and offering assistance when players shout “line!” or seem to need a little nudge.

It takes a few minutes to get used to the format, especially if you’re a regular theatre-goer, but it does have a certain unique and sparky sensitivity.


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A Shakespearean comedy, where you know things will turn out alright in the end (for most, anyway), is the perfect setting for a format such as this. It adds another layer to the jocular cake to hear that slight inflection or see that little smile of anticipation.

While an ounce of intensity is lost at some moments of gravity – Alexandra Kataigida’s shining performance as Shylock notwithstanding – there are times when I forget that the cast haven’t rehearsed. This takes quite some acting skill on their parts and makes you consider just how much preparation they must have done, on their own and with Lizzie, to get to a point of such natural onstage chemistry.

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Jonathan McGarrity and Charlotte Gallagher’s are the standout stars as Bassanio and Portia. Gallagher’s command of the stage only grows as the story goes on and, out of all the cast, she operates the uncertainty with the greatest confidence, her own sense of humour bleeding through.

It is a thrill to see the cast enjoying the surprise as much as us. The prevailing result of the cue script performance is that it allows the audience to feel complicit in the play’s creation. The pauses and breaks create our own personalised show that no other audience will get to see.

4/5 stars

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