Community Theatre Reaching Out Far And Wide
Liverpool Network Theatre are well into rehearsals for their forthcoming summer production of The Merchant of Venice which is to be staged at a number of venues around the city. This is perhaps one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays sitting 'twixt comedy and tragedy, so I was particularly interested to know why they had opted for this and which the director, Lauren Steele, was happy to explain.
Steele noted that The Merchant of Venice is a play full of pretence and show and which explores the lengths that characters will go to, tragically and comically, to be seen in the best light, something which resonates with our modern day approach to life, love and work, or as Steele rather more eloquently put it: we're all a bit mad but some of us are better at covering it up.
I was interested in her take on Shylock, a character many presuppose is the merchant in question although he is not, and the reason I believe many steer away from this play: the references to the fact he is a Jew. Steele acknowledged the quandaries of this very Elizabethan play and that she did not want the social mores of the time to cause any confusion and so she has taken the bold step to omit the explicit references so as not to detract from the character of a businessman very much playing his own game and although all that he does is by the rules, he is vilified and alienated because of what he does - lend money - and it is this moral outrage which ultimately condemns him and one we can perhaps recognise today: is Philip Green's behaviour in the recent collapse of BHS that of a modern day Shylock?
Steele's desire to make Shakespeare not only available but accessible to a wider audience, whilst remaining faithful to his well constructed plots and dramas, has seen a few other tweaks including the character of Portia becoming more analogous to young women of today rather than beholden to the Elizabethan aspiration of finding and marrying a man. Steele is very conscious that through the advent of social media, awareness and appreciation of Shakespeare has stepped up considerably from its historic highbrow isolation and her brave approach to this production is designed to allow the casual passer-by to stop and enjoy the play as well as for those more versed the opportunity to see one of the lesser performed works.
Steele is also an actress so I was naturally curious as to how she finds the role of directing, although this is not her first directorial role and I fancy not her last, and the different challenges it brings. Ironically Steele is clear that the biggest challenge is in fact the actors and whilst an amateur production does not have the budget of a professional one, she strongly believes in the ability, capability and desire of her cast to deliver. When she runs through the rehearsal process of the last three months, her passion clearly comes to the fore as she sets out the detailed structure and framework from the initial vocal warm-ups and conditioning necessary for outdoor theatre through to running scenes with script in hand, hastily followed by getting off-script, to exploring character relationships and their feelings in what is undoubtedly the key point of the challenge: the actor getting to truly know their character, their facets and foibles. Steele's time at drama school means she is able to bring the experiences and conditioning normally restricted to professional theatre to the amateur stage and consequently her productions are all the better for it.
It is this diligent and disciplined approach that allows Steele the confidence of letting her cast handle the vagaries of multi-venue performances, where there may be no such thing as stage left or right, as by then they are sharply honed and no longer in need of her input. Steele admits she doesn't watch any of the performances, in her mind her work is clearly done, although as she sits in a side room with a book in hand, as one eye occasionally glances at the time she will know better than most with her intimate knowledge of the play which scene is on stage at that very moment.
Although she doesn't say it, I'm sure she also enjoys hearing the echo of rapturous applause at the end of a job well done.
So, a play that exposes the circus of life where not everyone is who they seem to be or say that they are and where the one character who is true to himself is vilified even though he does everything by the book. With its modern day allusions I'm beginning to wonder which character I will like the most and whether it will be the one who is most like me. How about you? Why not come along and find out.
The Merchant of Venice performs at the following venues on the following dates:
Friday 15th July at 7.30pm Everton Park Nature Gardens
Saturday 16th July at 2pm Reynolds Park, Woolton
Sunday 17th July at 2pm Reynolds Park, Woolton
Friday 22nd July at 7.30pm Lowlands, West Derby
Saturday 23rd July at 7.30pm Liverpool Central Library
Sunday 24th July at 1pm Sudley House, Mossley Hill
Tickets are priced at £8 (Concessions £6.00) and are available from www.ticketsource.co.uk/mov
They are also available from News From Nowhere, Bold Street, Liverpool.
Liverpool Network Theatre Group was set up in 1984, born out of the idea of theatre as a political force, with the power to change society for the better. Currently, the group stages three productions per year. Further details on the group including upcoming productions, rehearsals and workshops can be found on their website www.liverpoolnetworktheatre.org.uk
Previewer: Mark Davoren
Previewed: 14th June 2016