Some of my favourite Fringe shows are the ones which re-imagine previously side-lined characters, considering them in interesting and unique ways and lending them an amplified voice. Ross Ericson has managed to take Gratiano – a largely un-appreciated character from The Merchant Of Venice – and give him not only a new lease of life, but a thoroughly memorable one at that.
Aside from Ericson’s clothes, which are straight out of post-war Italy, there’s not a lot to obviously denote that we're in the Venice of the 1940s. The show is all the better for it. The minimal set is divided between the cold emptiness of a police interrogation room, and a similarly soulless dive bar. In the former, Gratiano weaves exposition with history; in the latter, the character muses on his feelings in the way only inebriated old men can.
In Gratiano’s memories, Bassanio is transformed from hero to Nazi villain, laughing as he packs Shylock off to a concentration camp. He has also turned on Antonio, publicly denouncing him as a degenerate. Gratiano has lived a fairly timid life in comparison to the other three stars of the Merchant of Venice; he is the perfect observer of Mussolini’s fascist state.
Aside from a couple of slips in delivery and an oddly placed word or two (I’m not sure ‘toffs’ would have been a common word for a 1940s Venetian), it’s a powerful performance from Ericson. The programme hints that Gratiano was the first Shakespeare character Ericson ever played, and his understanding of the character certainly shows. In places, I thought the dialogue was a little too intellectual and self-aware, but Ericson nonetheless delivered the scenes with enough passion and intensity for me to buy into it.
I always dislike reviewing things as timely: all theatre tells us something about ourselves and our place in the world. What’s more impressive to me is the ability to set a show in a particular era and make it really work. There is no doubt that Ericson’s Gratiano is full of lessons we can take away for the modern world, and the show’s exploration of politics, race, sexuality and mob mentality are all relevant and eloquently expressed. Yet it’s the way Ericson manages to fully convince us that the cast of Merchant of Venice could have sprung out of 1940s that comes as a surprise.
So often I’ve seen Shakespeare adaptations try too hard to fit a square peg in a round hole; this show is not one of them. Ericson, with his physically imposing, impassioned performance, has delivered a truly intelligent idea and an insightful show that will leave you thinking for days.