A stained, lidless plastic container rests on electric weighing scales. Next to it sits a sunken, shredded man, his hands shaking as he holds the knife to carve the pound of flesh he is owed. In Abigail Graham’s brutal, lonely production of The Merchant of Venice, there is no question of who the victim is.
Shylock, played heart-wrenchingly by Adrian Schiller, is repeatedly spat at and hounded by vulgar city boys who hide their actions behind the crosses round their necks. By the time we reach the infamous scene of revenge, Shylock’s bind to his oath seems just. These men have taken so much from him, it only seems fair for him to take something back.
Shakespeare’s challenging text has been streamlined to a neat two hours in this contemporary production. Its innards have been snipped and significantly shuffled, so that we start with Launcelot (Aaron Vodovoz) switching allegiance from Shylock to Bassiano (Michael Marcus). Joining the toxic antisemitic boys while they’re out drinking, they make Launcelot do a shot every time he says the word “Jew”. Shylock’s devastating “If they prick us, do we not bleed?” speech is shifted powerfully to the end of the first half. The result is a production cleanly cut, sharply told.
Jarring with Shylock’s bleak storyline are the glitzy scenes in search of Portia’s husband. These hammed-up sections are uncannily well suited to the style of noughties TV gameshows, but they feel cut from a different play until Bassanio leaps on to the golden podium. He and Portia (Sophie Melville) spark off each other, slinky and playful as she manipulates his choice towards the winning box. The chemistry between Nerissa (Tripti Tripuraneni) and Gratiano (Raymond Anum) is strong too, leading to a hilarious wedding scene where sweet dancing devolves into debauchery.
The relationship between Shylock and his daughter Jessica (Eleanor Wyld) isn’t given enough stage time for their storyline to really wallop us, but the aesthetics and choices of the production’s final scene more than make up for it. Once Shylock has been stripped of the most meaningful part of his identity, the rest of the play is ripped right away, with any attempts to continue immediately drowned out. The impact is full-bodied. Jessica realises what really holds worth, and no room is left for anything else.
At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 9 April