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Theatre Review (Stratford-upon-Avon, UK): The Merchant of Venice

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How do you solve a problem like Shylock?

The process of aging has had differing effects on Shakespeare’s plays in modern performance. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, age has added much body, and history a deep maturity, leaving a work of immense potency, a rich complex drama that asks as much of the audience as it does of the cast.

Well, that was what I thought I was going to write as an opening, as I savoured the prospect of another spellbinding three hours in the company of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now I find myself waiting and reflecting before writing this review: was it really that bad, could it have been so soulless, timid, and cowardly as it had seemed? Yes, to the point it could quite possibly be the worst performance of a Shakespearean play I have ever witnessed at the R.S.C., or anywhere else for that matter.

The story of the play is too well known to be tediously recounted here. With its semantics, romantics, and anti-Semitism, it has been performed continually since 1596. However, the questions that arise in this ‘problem play’ are imbued with much contemporary relevance: the impact bankers' decisions can have on all our lives is suddenly news, for example. The commodification of the human being, inter-faith religious conflict, and the homoerotic overtones that lurk in male-dominated competitive environments are aspects of the play that may have had lesser importance in initial performances, too.

The play is comprised of a complex set of opposing dramatic equations, each one a finely balanced duality, where ethics can counterbalance principle, with just enough paradoxical morality to demand an enquiry from a questioning audience into the various humanitarian complexities thus exposed. Such is the finely wrought balance of the play that unsympathetic direction can, and sadly did, disturb this delicately poised dramatic equilibrium; actors are just men, and plays are just words.

Perhaps the director Tim Carroll should have renamed the play (which carried an alternate title, The Jew of Venice, ‘The Play That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, for it is with some irony that the most unbalanced role, Shylock, is performed by the only actor, Angus Wright, to project any charisma or character into his part. Why ironical? Because this Shylock is as Jewish as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Wright plays Shylock like an astute C.E.O. of some anonymous international financial organisation. This might have shed light into unexplored areas of the play, if only the crux of the play lay elsewhere, but it is not so. The fulcrum of the most important dramatic equation is the alleged mercy of Antonio and his final triumphant demand that Shylock become a Christian. If Shylock’s rough justice is to cut out Antonio’s heart, deaf to any plea for mercy, then Shylock’s conversion to Christianity, demanded by Antonio, would steal Shylock’s very soul, and deny him eternal salvation: a telling indictment of Christian mercy, and exposure of inter-religious intolerance. Consequentially the scene is not quite so effective or telling, as this Shylock appears to be an almost secular executive, who pays little import to his faith.

The set and costumes do little to help this young cast achieve any sense of place. The play opens and closes with a chummy folk dance that, for one awful moment during the finale, I thought was going to morph into Hava Nagila, as Shylock square dances with his tormentors. The homoerotic opening is reduced to a gauche display of male bonding and bravado, thus leaving James Garnon’s Antonio with little logical reason to explain his willingness to take on Shylock’s bond. This also leaves no room for the power of his unrequited love for Bassanio to be examined, and contrasted to Bassanio’s mercenary love for Portia. Another pair of dramatic equations fall from orbit and unbalance this already off-kilter production.

The cast are dressed for the most part in ill fitting suits that do little to help these uncomfortable players raise the ensemble scenes above the level of the school play, bereft as they are of any significant scenery for most of the play’s duration. They troop aimlessly about on the stage, which, washed in scarlet paint, resembles the floor of some disused, unhygienic abattoir.

When there is scenery, it has a random and perplexing nature. During the ‘choose the casket’ scene, the Prince of Morocco (apparently dressed by the wardrobe department of Carry On… Up The Khyber) has to choose from three glass fish tanks, on plinths, while Georgina Rich’s Portia looks on from inside a cave framed by stalactites, and on a shelf over her head disembodied hands play half full wine glasses. This looks like nothing if not an episode of Deal or No Deal, live from the planet Zerg, created by the production crew of a mid-eighties episode of Dr Who. The commodification of Portia from beyond the grave by her father, and how it reflects and refracts Shylock’s relationship with his daughter, is polluted by this parodic pantomime.

Act Four is this production’s last chance to save itself. Portia, who has, up to the courtroom scene, been the most commendable female in the company, has her limitations exposed by the ‘deeds of mercy’ speech, for they are not 'strain’d'; rather they are made to suffer multiple fractures, in the most desperately bland delivery of one of the great speeches of supplication in all of Shakespeare. Add to that the fact the choreography of the court scene does little other than raise the suspicion that this young cast all need immediate treatment for ADHD. Indeed, it is the audience that, instead of being twice blessed, ends up being twice vexed by this confused and wasted scene.

The cast certainly wear their anxiety on their sleeves, for once Shylock is dispensed with (well, until square dancing duties call), a huge sigh of relief is palpable, and they raise their collective game to finish Act Five in an energetic display of romantic comedy. They seem relieved to be in some distant relation of Twelfth Night, as opposed to dealing with all that nasty anti-Semitic controversy, and playing mercy against judgment. However, before the denouement, there is one more agony to suffer, and agony is the only way to describe the delivery that Patrick Moy as Lorenzo gives his opening lines at the start of Act Five. 'Drone' could describe it, but somehow that implies some latent cadence, something that picks the delivery off the oratorical flat line it so implacably inhabited; the famous monotone of Peter Cook’s E. L. Wisty is positively Churchillian in comparison. My only thought was total disbelief that I was hearing something so awful on such a hallowed stage, apart, that is, from realising Mr Moy must consider Shakespearian meter some carnivorous Tudor delicacy, and not something worthy of his attention while he is performing on the stage in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Perhaps I was forever spoilt by Trevor Nunn’s exploration of the heart of religious and sexual darkness that lie in the belly of this play, in his 1999 production at the National Theatre. Perhaps I have missed the point completely, an answer I would prefer to the question: what caused the R.S.C. to facilitate this bland, confused, and pointless production? Why would such a renowned director as Tim Carroll give us a Merchant of Venice with the heart already removed? Please tell me political correctness has not infected the R.S.C.’s reading of Shakespeare; this play has much to teach us about intolerance and fear, justice and mercy, revenge and forgiveness, and the true nature of love, but you’ve got to have a little faith in its intrinsic humanity: ‘to do a great right, do a little wrong’.

In repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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  • http://polemicscat.wordpress.com Polemicscat

    Good essay. As you suggest, Shylock’s being required to convert to Christianity is at odds with modern sensibilities. In order to accept that as a satisfactory solution, we have to remember that the sixteenth-century audience would have believed that Shylock was eternally blessed by conversion.