On October 24, the Mombasa Shakespeare Group presents the first of three public performances of “The Merchant of Venice”, their third annual open-air production at the Mombasa Institute of Muslim Education. The principal of the institute has this year made available to the group a site in front of the Nautical School, so that the curved facade of the building, with its pillars and steps, forms a background for the action. A further luxury which the group has enjoyed this year has been the provision by the principal of a second open-air site for its rehearsals. The audiences will appreciate the fact that this time, using the side entrance in Rassini Road, they can drive right down to the acting area adjacent to which are ample car parks so that the long walk in the dark necessary in other years is avoided.
Portia is being played by Frances McCulloch making a welcome return to the stage after three years/absence. She was last seen as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and prior to that as Lady Macbeth. Playing opposite her is Frank Bentley as Bassanio, who has not appeared in Mombasa before, although he has taken part in Nairobi Shakespearean productions. The exacting role of Shylock is in the capable and experienced hands of Harbhajan Singh, while the part of his intended victim Antonio is played by Derek Orton in his first major role.
The comedy is once more in the hands of Allan Morrison as Launcelot, supported by Michael Livesey as Old Gobbo.The romantic interest is supplied by Dinah Heavens and Albert Da Cruz as Jessica and Lorenzo and Portia’s princely suitors are played by David Okeno and Rustom Hira as the Princes of Morocco and Arragon respectively. The song “Tell me where is fancy bred” is sung by Francoise Holmes in her role as attendant on Portia and she and her husband Michael (who plays Salerio) provide the other music and fanfares required in the play. Other parts are being taken by Joy Wren (Nerissa), Geoffrey Beverly (Gratiano), Tim Carroll (Duke of Venice) and John Parker (Solanio).
Lighting is being arranged by Jack Wren, costumes made by Eve Glanville and the play is produced by Denis Glanville. In addition to the three public performances there are to be at least two special schools performances there to be at least two special school performances and it is also hoped to visit Shimo-la-Tewa to “Christen” the open air theatre built by the pupils of the Coast Secondary School. Profits from the performance on October 24 are being given to the Mombasa Lions Club.
The sombre grey walls and arched doorways of the Tudor Creek side of the Muslim Institute provide the “backcloth” in an excellent strikingly unusual setting for Mombasa Shakespeare Group’s production of The Merchant of Venice. Also on the open-air stage are a palm tree in the foreground and the minimum of properties – during most of the play a single throne-like chair. With this setting, illuminated ingeniously by a strong battery of light, Denis Glanville, the producer, provides an intimate presentation well worth seeing. For an amateur society, the acting is extraordinarily good, though some of the small-part players show evidence of lack of experience.
Harbhajan Singh’s Shylock is an entertaining distinctive creation. He avoids completely the temptation to rant and overact – common mistakes among amateur Shylocks. With the ideal portly built for the part, he is unctuous, insinuating, self-righteous and malevolent – but never crudely so.
In the trial scene, his faintly bewildered expression when Antonio and Portia appeal to him for mercy is one of the highlights of the production. Derek Orton is an undemonstrative but competent Antonio. Frank Bentley masters the not very rewarding part of Bassanio, Antonio’s close friend and Portia’s lover.
Frances McCulloch was perhaps a little slow on the first night to get into her role as Portia but she is an accomplished actress. Joy Wren as her maid Nerissa, gives her excellent backing. The two women delighted the first-night audience with their gentle teasing of their husbands in the ring sequence at the end of the play.
Alan Morrison is a delightful but by no means slapstick Launcelot Gobbo; and Michael Livesey plays two small parts well – Launcelot’s senile father and Tubal, Shylock’s friend. Dinah Heavens, on the first night, was slow in getting into her role as Jessica, but she improved much as the play progressed.
The acting of some of the other small-part players was rather limp now and then. This was a pity, particularly in the case of the two unsuccessful suitors to Portia, who have meaningful parts, small though they are. Rightly, a tall young African (David Okeno) was chosen to play the Prince of Morocco.
The production is slick and imaginative use being made (by Jessica) of a first-floor window of the Muslim Institute as well as several entrances. The audience being close at hand, this is intimate theatre, with much of the dialogue spoken a few feet from the front row.
On the first night, the actors were at times handicapped by a fairly strong breeze, which sometimes snatched away their words in mid-sentence. A particularly bad example of this occurred during Portia’s famous speech on “the quality of mercy.”