If you’ve been on social media at all over the past few months, there’s a chance you would’ve seen videos about the much-hyped Pop-Up Globe coming to Sydney this month. Like Katharina Grosse’s installation at Carriageworks earlier this year, from those videos it seems like a chance for every basic white girl to express their ‘artistic side’ to their Instagram followers – without taking in a deeper understanding of the sheer magnitude of the whole concept. Even better, they could capture a Boomerang of themselves clinking wine glasses with the Globe stage in the background, a subtle indication of their ‘cultured selves’ (do people still Boomerang?). Yet, when you ask them what they liked about the show, all you’ll hear is ‘the costumes were nice’ or ‘the lights were pretty’ (which, admittedly, they both are).
Or perhaps you haven’t read about it; in which case, allow me to explain – right now, in Entertainment Quarter, there exists a life-size near-perfect rendition of Shakespeare’s (second) original Globe Theatre. A process of academic research and brilliant aesthetics, PUG founder Miles Gregory has recreated the world-famous Thames-based playhouse down to the wire – in-the-round stage, open-air theatre, and (carpeted) groundling pit included. Bar some modern instruments and lighting schemes, everything is natural – actors battle the sounds of nature without microphones and a cold breeze continuously freezes the audience (or at least those who decide not to purchase a substantial dose of mulled wine). Debuting in New Zealand (with a brief stint in Melbourne last year) and featuring an all-male, nearly all-Australian and New Zealand cast, Gregory wants his shows not to be ‘dusty Shakespeare’ but rather ‘Alive. Like a party’.
In director David Lawrence’s Merchant, we definitely feel like we’re in a party. What we don’t feel, however, is the power of the play’s more poignant moments.
This party atmosphere hits well before the play begins. In Sport for Jove style, the audience enters the Globe to the cast loitering around on stage, cheesy but cheery medieval music warming us to the whole experience. It takes some time to accustom oneself to the 4 cross-dressed actors on stage, particularly the burly red-robed Jessica (Sonny Bill Williams-esque Maori actor Reuben Butler) and the scene-stealing Nerissa (Thomas Wingfield, a clean-shaven and paler Russell Brand), but since the PUG looks to re-enact the gender restrictions of Elizabethan theatre we eventually learn to roll with it. It makes for some great humour later on, particularly when Jessica embraces the much shorter Lorenzo in an overly passionate kiss.
From then on, the performance is a mix of vibrant costumes, incredibly funny fourth-wall breaks (including yours truly singled out as a French suitor rejected by Portia), and even the occasional dance break (special shout-out to Jason Te Kare as the Prince of Morocco and his fascinating band of North African dancers/guards). Where the play shines most is its exploration of Portia’s romantic subplot – Patrick Carroll puts on an incredibly immersive gender-bending performance in his/her search for love, disguise at the court, and subsequent dealings with Basanio (Josh Cramond) – which reaches its peak in the play’s final scene, as the men and their wives bicker over the importance of the rings the former have given ‘away’. For those new to Shakespeare and those accustomed to it, it really is good old fun – similar, I feel, to the way Shakespeare intended his theatre to be.
Unfortunately, such great humour distracts one from the performance’s more dramatic themes. Build-ups to punchlines are sacrificed for the punchline itself, with the actors racing to get through their lines (looking at you again Te Kare, but not for good reason this time). Voice work is all over the place, to the extent where it borders on the Merchant of Auckland than the Merchant of Venice (notably in Butler’s and Asalemo Tofete’s performances as Jessica and Tubal respectively). Worst of all, we miss out on the tension between Antonio (Jonathan Martin) and Shylock (Peter Daubé). The latter never quite seems to balance the hatred but humanity within Shylock, giving a boring performance lost in the middle of the two. The audience is subsequently unable to understand the importance of his ring, the loss he feels at the play’s end, his hatred for Antonio, or the intended impact of his ‘hath not a jew eyes’ monologue; it fades away in order to emphasise the party vibe, leaving us to hate Shylock simply because our pre-show knowledge of the play dictates he has to be hated. Because of this, the audience can’t entirely connect with Antonio either – though he picks up in likeability and characterisation later in the play, again it seems like the subplot has overtaken the main one in this show. For someone who has not only studied the play, but has a deep passion for the issues it raises, in this respect I feel like I missed out.
That being said, if all you’re looking for is two hours of good humour, entertaining comedic theatre, and some decent mulled wine, then pick up some dirt cheap groundling tickets. It would be better with a stronger intellectual challenge, but then again – nerds have never been fun at parties.