The Merchant of Venice – Ashley Joseph

This adaptation looks at the celebrity-driven, internet world full of selfies and hashtags.

This year commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and to mark this auspicious occasion Studio 3 Arts will present an exciting promenade outdoor production of The Merchant of Venice from Tuesday 5 – Sunday 10 July around Barking Town Centre’s key landmarks. Based in Barking, Studio 3 Arts is at the forefront of social engagement in the arts. This adaptation looks at the celebrity-driven, internet world full of selfies and hashtags. There’s a wealthy heiress looking for a husband and on the streets of Barking, a rich merchant is looking for a loan. Everyone is out to make it for themselves; but everything comes at a price. Relocated to Barking in an adaptation by writer Ashley Joseph, Studio 3 Arts presents a professional cast of actors alongside a team of community performers from across the Borough.

Can you tell us about the production?
The Merchant of Venice is about a young man, Bassanio (Alec Parkinson) who is in love with Portia a rich lady who lives far away from Barking, Belmont estate…in Romford. He unfortunately doesn’t have enough money to go there and enlists the help of hiss good wealthy friend Antonio who’s money is tied up in investments. Bassanio uses Antonio’s name as a guarantor to acquire some fast cash (kind of like a payday loan element), he asks Shylock (Marc Bannerman), a wealthy Jew who has a long feud with Antonio (Michael Bertenshaw). Shylock lends the money but says if Antonio cannot pay him back on the day in the contract the amount of money he will have ‘a pound of his fair flesh’. The production still sticks to the original storyline, character names, however it has been relocated to Barking, the language is a marriage of my language and Shakespeare’s #AshSpeare.
Another exciting element is that this production is a promenade which means the audience will not only go on an emotional journey but a physical one too. Around the Barking Town Square in and around some of the buildings.

The Merchant of Venice is known for its dramatic scenes. Can you tell us how you have you kept this theme alive in your adaptation?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that the dramatic scenes are themes, I would see them as moments and here’s what I did to keep those moments alive. I honoured the truth of the text and what the characters are going through. There are lots of funny moments for light relief but when it gets real, it gets real. Whether that is the issue of love, religion, race I wrote with that in mind. If I do my job right then the actors and director will find those true moments and bring them to life.

You co-wrote and co-directed Studio 3 Arts annual Summer theatre productions Logical Conclusion, YesToday, Teenology as well as the joint enterprise production ‘Do Not Pop’. Taking on a production by Shakespeare can be a daunting task for any writer even one as talented as you. Can you tell our readers how you prepared for this?
Honestly…I procrastinated for a little while because it was extremely daunting. Being given permission to take on the Bards work and make changes where I saw fit, plus the feeling of disappointing the dedicated Shakespeare audiences. After I got over that feeling I literally broke down the task, my first two goals were translate the text and reduce the length of the play (3 hours down to 1.5 hours #CrayCray), then I did research on Barking, met with some local people who work, live and volunteer in the area to get their stories and hear their views on the area. I also watched a couple film versions, but after I had written my first draft as I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced.

Your adaptation for The Merchant of Venice is set in today’s times in east London. As you yourself grew up and went school in east London were you able to draw from your own experiences when writing this adaptation?

I definitely think I drew on the voices and characters of people I met growing up and implementing that into the script when writing for the characters. I don’t think I put any of my own real experiences into the play…Oh actually, one. It’s a line Launcelot says, but I’m not saying which one. I put a bit of myself into Launcelot.

Who is your favourite character and what makes them stand out for you from the others?
This question is toooooooo hard! Pass! Ok you’ve twisted my arm. I will give three characters.

Portia (played by Lucy Dixon) She represents the intelligence, independence and intuition of a great woman in the making. Plus she is just pure class…Hold up Portia might be a younger version of my mum.

Morocco (Played by Kiell Smith-Bynoe) he is just a brilliant character in how he talks, he stands out from the others because he is a man out of place but in the right place at the same time. I would love to have a late Sunday lunch with Morocco then party…on a bank holiday weekend.

Launcelot (played by Will Frazer). He is crazy, witty, wacky and hilarious. What makes him stand out is that he is one of the most intelligent, emotional characters who deals with so much by just putting on a happy face.

Which scene was the most fun for you to write?

Without a doubt the Morocco’s scenes. I was jumping up and down, laughing, playing every character in the scenes… I wish there were time in the show for the audience to see him a third time.

Which scenes are you looking forward to watching play out in the streets of Barking in front of an audience?

I know it’s cliche but all of it. Knowing which bits I got right and which bits I still cringe at. I am especially looking forward to the final scene, that one I am really proud of because I made a bold choice about the ending and what happens, I’m glad I took a risk and I think it will pay off for the audience.

What can the audience expect from this production?
Pure entertainment across the board, there will be romance, laughter, tenderness, rage, dance and even an interval where lavatories can be used at no extra cost.

You said once that you wasn’t a fan of drama and you that you didn’t like Shakespeare. I’ve seen you in ACTing Up! as well as a number of other productions so I think we can safely say that you seem to be a great fan of Drama but how do you now feel about Shakespeare?
Yeah, I don’t how you got this information, I need to tighten my inner circle- information is getting out! Hahaha!
It’s true, actually I wasn’t even into drama as a child, but my bit sister got me into that and turned my attention away from Maths and History- still love them though. I just didn’t connect with Shakespeare, the way it was taught in secondary school. I could understand it and interpret the text but I didn’t feel like it had a place in my life until my A-Level drama and theatre studies teacher (Ms Shannen Owen- Love ya Ms!) helped me with my Shakespeare audition speeches and I got a passion for the language and stories being told..Hamlet and Macbeth were turning points for me.
I really enjoy Shakespeare now, as a writer and an actor I have taken on the work and really enjoyed the journey and process.

And finally What’s next Ashley Joseph? Marvel maybe?

Hahaha You guys know me too well! I think I should be in the second Black Panther movie as T’Chala’s protege or actually let me just write my own Marvel script- Some get Stan Lee on the blower! I’ve got lots going on and it’s all different, presenting festivals, acting in a short film, writing another script and hopefully finding time to sleep!
Merchant of Venice 5th-10th July @MovBarking
ACTing Up -21st July @ACTingUp_Comedy

Merchant of Venice – Tuesday 5th – Sunday 10th July, 7.45pm, Saturday 3pm & 7.45pm Sunday 3pm. Tickets are £5, £10. To book call: 020 8507 5607 | | Broadway Barking, Broadway, IG11 7LS #MOVBARKING