REVIEWS

Sat, Nov 8, 2008, 00:00

The Merchant of VeniceHelix Theatre, Dublin - Shakespeare was a man of his time and not immune from its prejudices. The Taming of the Shrewis suffused with misogyny and a current of naked anti-Semitism runs strongly through The Merchant of Venicewrites Gerry Colgan

It requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief to surrender wholly to the author's story-spinning in these plays, but his word magic at least rewards the effort.

This Second Age production, designed equally for school students and adults and directed by Josh Edelman, has a traditional core that absorbs a few innovations without distortion.

These include modern costumes, Hebrew music and the use of masks with a dual purpose, to lend colour to some scenes and to disguise the doubling up of roles. Beyond these, it's the bard in familiar mode.

The acting offers the best element of the evening, with veteran David Heap opening the proceedings with authority as the sad Antonio. Bassanio gets a forthright interpretation from David Ryan, with nice support from Liam Hourican as his friend Gratiano.

On the distaff side, Maeve Fitzgerald as Portia and Eva Bartley as her maid Nerissa rise easily to the romantic content and to the climactic drama of the court scene. Supporting roles are generally well taken.

That leaves Shylock, with Enda Oates putting his individual stamp on him. He shrugs aside servility to present a strong character in revolt against a lifetime of insult and contempt.

It is a riveting performance, maintained to the very end in the face of the court's facile dismissal of his case and the penalties they impose on his alien presumption. He leaves with hatred, not humility, in his heart.

A solid production of an old classic, then. But if only Shylock had a half-decent barrister . . .

Runs until November 21st.

•Daily BreadProject Arts Centre, Dublin

Sara Keating

Dublin Youth Theatre showcases its continuing willingness to experiment with its presentation of the English-language premiere of Gesine Danckwart's fragmented monologue play Daily Bread.

Translated and directed by Rachel West, the dense, existentialist drama addresses the complexity of the capitalist world, where a body is valued only for its capacity to work. It is about the struggle for identity amid corporate conformity, the search for a sense of self-worth in a hierarchy of endless reinvention.

"What am I worth?" the characters ask, and Danckwart concludes bleakly: only as much as your next pay cheque.

Alyson Cummins's clinical design reconfigures the physical space in the Project Cube so that the eight young actors are thrust into uncomfortable proximity with the audience. However, although this is effective in enhancing the post-modern presentation style, it also scuppers sight-lines, and the use of live video projection seems as much a corrective as a reflection of the mediatised environment that the characters are trapped in.

Aideen Cosgrove's lighting, meanwhile, suitably enhances the uncomfortable reality effect.

The ensemble cope admirably with the difficult material they have been offered. Having been given nothing more than a series of voices from which to build their performances, they find moments of humour and even some sort of plot amid the opaque collage.

Under Rachel West's lucid direction, they are challenged to experiment with different levels of performance realities and they readily rise to the challenge.

However, while the contrast between the forced smiles of their enthusiastic performances adds an extra layer of uneasy irony to Danckwart's play, it also raises an issue about the relevance of this material for the young cast.

There are certainly themes of connection - the idea of emerging identities for the "unwritten faces" is one - but Daily Bread is deeply embedded in a life that the 18- to 21-year-old actors have yet to discover. It seems almost unfair that they should have been forced into such deeply cynical positions before their time: whatever happened to youthful optimism?

Ends today.

Bliss, UO/MontgomeryNCH, Dublin

Michael Dervan

Britten- Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell.

Weber- Clarinet Concerto No 2. John Tavener - The Repentant Thief.

Hindemith- Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes of Weber.

The Ulster Orchestra's programme at the National Concert Hall was one of transformations.

Some were overt, with Benjamin Britten putting Henry Purcell through the hoops to show off the instruments of the orchestra in his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (a piece also known as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra when performed with explanatory narration), and Paul Hindemith using 20th-century orchestral wizardry in his consistently clever overlaying of 19th-century material by Carl Maria von Weber.

Weber, of course, had borrowed some of his own material from earlier sources (including some attractive chinoiserie from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique of 1768). Hindemith wasn't beyond lifting syncopations from the world of jazz to aid in his metamorphosing of Weber.

John Tavener's The Repentant Thief embraces an exotic, eastern ethnicity in the sequence of dances and reflections through which he treats the redemptive journey of the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus.

Exuberance was the hallmark of the Ulster Orchestra's music-making under its principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery. There was demonstrative swagger and blare aplenty in the Britten, and a sense of sweep, too, that is not to be taken for granted.

Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses did not respond quite as well to the same kind of approach, and the moments of roughness in the playing registered that bit more keenly.

Teenage clarinettist Julian Bliss was the soloist in the two central items, showing wonderfully easy velocity in the roulades of Weber's Second Clarinet Concerto and thoroughly relishing the elements of Greek-flavoured earthiness in the Tavener.