Richmond theatre audiences are used to stamping their feet and vigorously kicking the wooden boards in front of them to demonstrate applause, so it was not surprising that they rose (very admirably) to the challenge put before them by The Globe Theatre on the opening night of their run at the Georgian Theatre Royal.
The current tour is unprecedented in the Globe’s history and the actors thanked the audience at the start of the evening for being part of the ‘experiment’.
The concept is an interesting one. Three Shakespearian plays are offered at the beginning of the performance and the audience are invited to vote for the one they most want to see. Their votes are measured by the level of applause as the name of each show is read out and this is where Richmond excelled.
The actors were clearly taken aback by the extent of shouting, cheering and stamping with which people let their choice be known. (Evidently other audiences on the tour had taken bit of encouragement to express their feelings!)
All three plays obviously had a fan base (there was actually not much between them in volume) but the final adjudication was assigned to a young man sitting in one of the boxes. The winner was declared to be The Merchant of Venice and within seconds the cast had flung themselves into the opening scene.
It is a sign of the quality and professionalism of the troupe that they were able to drop into their roles so easily. Had the vote gone a different way then they might equally have been delivering Twelfth Night or The Taming of The Shrew – the other two plays on offer.
To accommodate the democratic process, the set consisted of a static wooden scaffolding that towered above the stage (accommodating everything from court scenes to marriage celebrations) and the costumes relied upon simple base layers upon which accessories and cloaks were added to denote the frequent character changes adopted by the eight-strong company.
The result was certainly impressive with energetic performances that perfectly portrayed the tensions of the commercially driven Venice where people and property were viewed as commodities and racial conflict was rife.
Indeed, some of the scenes sit rather uncomfortably with a modern audience, for instance the marriages of Portia and Jessica – which are negotiations underpinned by money – and when Shylock is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity after relinquishing his possessions. Nevertheless, there was also plenty of laughter in the performance – particularly in the hilarious casket trial scenes – that counterbalanced those more thought-provoking moments.
This is a company at the top of its game and the actors were clearly enjoying every bit of it. The audience loved it too and the applause at the end of the evening mirrored the exuberance shown at the beginning, except this time the enthusiasm that had been split by a three-way vote channelled into one harmonious cacophony of wood-beating approval.
The Globe on Tour are at The Georgian Theatre Royal until Sunday 8 July.