Audiences at Newcastle must make up their own minds about Shakespeare's anti-Semitic' play

THERE is a buzz of excitement about the Royal Shakespeare Company's new "temporary" home at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford which feels entirely different to the sedate atmosphere of its world famous counterpart, a few hundred yards down the road. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre currently looks like it's been ripped asunder by an angry Kate from The Taming Of The Shrew before Shylock from The Merchant Of Venice moved in to remove far more than the allotted pound of flesh from the interior. Three years and £112m are required to renovate the RST and next-door Swan Theatre.

Meanwhile, audiences are flocking to the Courtyard to see Merchant, with London Globe's Tim Carroll making his debut as director, and Shrew, in the hands of Tim Carroll who is similarly inspired by the Bard's Globe.

Both these plays are heading to Newcastle's Theatre Royal in October for the RSC's truncated 31st season and North-East journalists were invited down to Stratford-upon-Avon last week to chat with key cast members and drink in two productions which have become rare sights in the North-East.

According to the Echo's rickety archive the most recent tour to Newcastle of Merchant starred Philip Voss and was back in 1998 and you have to wander back another two years to a madcap Josie Lawrence and ex-Doctor In The House Robin Nedwell - who died in 1999 - as the mis-matched lovers in Shrew.

Although smaller scale RSC versions of both were seen at places like the Rainbow Leisure Centre, Coulby Newham, Middlesbrough more recently, you can see why both these controversial plays present difficulties for our PC-laden society and its directors and actors.

Carroll opts for a business-suited and contemporary presentation of Merchant plus a bit of a cop out on the anti-Semitic theme by declaring that he hadn't made his mind up about the play's message: "My plan is simply to give everyone in the play a fair crack of the whip - to go into bat for what they believe in and let the audience sort it out." He's gone for a younger than usual Shylock in Angus Wright which allows the production to boast a lithe and muscular villain of the piece who looks more than capable of hacking a lump of flesh from his adversary Antonio (played by James Garnon). In fact I can guarantee at least one heart-stopping moment as Shylock suddenly realises his chances of revenge are ebbing away.

The production may be light on set but props include the three caskets to test Portia's (Georgina Rich) suitors being cast in ice which shatters effectively when Bassanio (Jack Laskey) finally solves the riddle of selecting between rewards of gold, silver and lead.

THE Shrew goes for broke with BBC1's daytime soap Doctors' star Stephen Boxer becoming the vilest Shakespearean example of manhood you can imagine. His dreamer is a modern-day Bigg Market reveller before transforming into bigoted and bullying Petruchio in Padua and Verona of old. Michelle Gomez, of C4's Green Wing, debuts as a gum-chewing club hostess who reappears as the eviltempered and husband-less Katherina.

An impressive set, with the players arriving on what appears to be a lifesize motor coach, slightly offsets the dark-hearted approach to Shrew, which is normally played for laughs.

Director Morrison says of the male characters in Shrew: "I find it gobsmacking that some people see the play as misogynistic. I believe that it is a moral tale. I believe that it is saying do not be like this' and do not do this, these people are objectionable'."

The Courtyard's thrust stage layout - which is the template for the new-look RST - works beautifully in Merchant with front row audience members pressed into action as examples of manhood, potential suitors for Portia's hand or to pass secret messages.

Discussions with the actors highlighted the fact that decisions are still to be made on how this level of intimacy can be maintained with Newcastle Theatre Royal ticket-buyers who are separated from the stage by the orchestra pit.

"I'm pretty sure that Newcastle audiences will be more up for this than some of the people we get at Stratford,"

says Stephen Boxer about the Shrew.