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Review: 454 Grams
Written by Richard Stamp   
Published on Monday, 12 July 2010

I’ll start this review with a warning.  At one point late on in this play, a famous scene from Shakespeare is acted out a by mime with no trousers... and a woman holding brightly-coloured helium balloons.  If that’s just not something you’re prepared to accept, you might as well move on; but if it sounds like it might be intriguing, then let me explain.

First, there’s that puzzling title.  454 grams, you see, is a metric pound: specifically, the pound of flesh at the centre of The Merchant of Venice.  Fitting its modernistic moniker, 454 Grams is an in-your-face reworking, which shows us the Merchant not once but twice.  First it’s compressed down into a seven-minute rollercoaster of music, dance and humour; then we see it again in a fuller version, this time more thoughtful – if scarcely less weird.

The best bits are all in the background, as an overhead projector creates patterns and images which ambitiously merge with the action on stage.  A thumping soundtrack keeps the energy high, and there’s so much else also going on that it's futile to try to describe it all.  If I mention that the lighting rig’s powered by an exercise bike, you’ll get an idea of how out-there it is.  But there are moments of sobriety too – including a truly horrific ending, which masterfully conveys the impact of Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity.

And there's the thing.  Amidst all their madcap capers, they really do tell the story, and tell it rather well.  They genuinely care about making the text accessible, even pausing the action for a quick recap to ensure that nobody's left behind.  The vanguard of this work is a sensory assault – but behind it there's a subtlety and an honesty I truly admired.

I can't tell you whether you'll like 454 Grams; it’s just not the type of work which lends itself to such definitive points of view.  All I can say is that I, personally, was gripped, and I found it achieved all that it aimed for in exposing and explaining Shakespeare's plot.  Maybe you'll connect with it like I did; or maybe you'll leave confused and unmoved.  There’s only one way to find out.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.