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The Royal Dramatic Theatre

'The Merchant of Venice'

by Renee Oberg

July 21, 2005 -- The Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, Sweden

"The Merchant of Venice" is, when you think about it, the obvious choice for Mats Ek. It deals with a subject that is almost his trademark, the life of the outsider. In “The Merchant” we meet plenty of them, but the most obvious one is Shylock, the Jew making his living as a profiteer, hated by everyone including his own daughter. In Ek’s production, Shylock is played by a woman, his sister Malin Ek, making the character even more “different”. Malin Ek’s performance is discreet but distinct, and every now and then she explodes in moments of pure magic. The despair that Shylock feels when coming home to find his darling daughter Jessica gone, leading up to the, in this version, very low-key crescendo (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”), which sends shivers down one’s spine.

All the different stories of “The Merchant” are treated with the same respect and thoroughness in this production, and Mats Ek has managed to weave them all together beautifully. One of the threads he uses is having the noblemen, Salerio and Solanio, played by two dancers from the Cullberg ballet, Yvan Auzely and Bernard Cauchard. Not only are they playing the noblemen, they also have the function of the chorus of the play. As in the Greek tragedies, this chorus is commenting on the plot, pushing the story forward, but for this chorus the language is mainly the language of movement.

In this dark comedy (as it says in the programme) the humour is never far away, and the audience constantly has fits of laughter only to choke on them the very next second. The play actually had to pause a couple of times when the ovations wouldn’t stop. One of these occasions was after a play on gender roles in which Ek presented Auzely and Cauchard as the entourage of the Prince of Aragon as full-fledged flamencas complete with dresses and fans.

Ek has never been afraid of experimenting with different art forms and “The Merchant of Venice” is no exception. The actors are speaking, singing and dancing their way through the play, and what amazes me is how natural it all feels. Having an actor starting his monologue speaking just to finish it dancing, or maybe dancing while speaking, is never something that feels contrived in any way. One of the secrets behind this, in my opinion, is that Ek has managed to make everyone on stage comfortable with speaking his unique language. Considering that most of these actors never had to perform this kind of demanding choreography before, one of the greatest surprises is the dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5. Lorenzo (played by actor Jonas Malmsjö) enters the stage flying, suspended in the air by wires. Flying in over Jessica the romantic dialogue turns into a beautiful pas de deux, showing the very essence of this young couple falling in love.

“The Merchant of Venice,” directed and choreographed by Mats Ek, is nothing short of a little piece of magic. When the play now comes into its third season, it will have already been seen by almost 60,000 people, and its success is well deserved. For those who will not have the opportunity to see it in Stockholm, there is a chance to catch “The Merchant” on tour in Italy in October.


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