Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Review

Review: The Merchant of Venice, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 16th May 2015

Having so recently written about Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, there is no need to rehearse the relationship between the two, though it is worth emphasizing again their paradoxical performance history in recently years. Marlowe’s play was originally called The Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, but is now usually performed as a dark comedy; Shakespeare’s play was originally The Comedy of the Merchant of Venice, but is now usually (always?) performed as a tragedy (with occasional comic elements). The transformations reflect our changed attitudes and the problematization of race in the modern era. Marlowe’s Jew is so irredeemably bad that we can only read the portrayal ironically; Shakespeare’s Jew is treated so badly that we can only read the portrayal tragically. Whether or not the problematic elements were there in the original productions is another matter (though I’m inclined to believe they were). In this respect, both recent RSC productions have trod familiar ground: we sympathise with both Jewish characters and feel discomfort at the behaviour of most of the avowedly Christian characters. Polly Findlay, directing the current RSC production, takes the same familiar track as, for example, the 2004 film starring Al Pacino. Shylock has an understated but solid nobility, Gratiano is an oaf, Bassiano is shallow and Antonio is a bigot. But though it covers familiar ground, it glides over it very elegantly.

The Duke and Antonio
One of the most arresting features of this production is the stunning set design by Johannes Schütz. There are none of the clichéd accoutrements for plays set in Venice (Gondola moorings, the Rialto painted in the background and so on), and neither is it conventionally modern. The stage floor and back wall of the stage are covered in metallic reflective tiles, making the theatre seem much bigger than it is. The only piece of scenery is a large metal ball hanging from a wire. Reflected on the back wall, it is perhaps meant to evoke the three-ball symbol of money lenders associated with the Medici. The cast sit on stools at either side of the stage (being a bit of a thickie, I initially thought this was a new space the RSC had set aside for people with mobility problems). The stage is spare but not stark, because light and shadow are bounced around erratically by the reflective tiles, accentuating both the lighter and darker episodes in the drama. At the conclusion, candles are placed on the stage, beautifully realising the magical unreality of Belmont; and throughout the play the musical accompaniment, evoking haunting renaissance church music, helps to underline a rising atmosphere of heavy unease.

One disappointing aspect of the play is the costumes. The actors wear modern dress, which makes sense (Elizabethan dress would probably not suit the nightclub feel of the stage), but the outfits are either tediously drab (Antonio, Lorenzo, Bassiano) or garishly ‘street’ (Gratiano). In either approach, the results are bland and often ill-fitting, completely ill-suited (bad pun intended) to the Venetian setting, in which glamour, even an understated or decaying glamour, might have worked better.

As the audience enter, Antonio stands alone on the stage. Only after a few minutes, does it become clear that he weeps. At first, this seems to humanise Antonio. Much more so than the hard but melancholy Antonio of Jeremy Irons in the 2004 film, Jamie Ballard’s Antonio might at last be a character we connect emotionally connect with. This intriguing approach (a likeable Antonio!) might cast a penetrating light on the relationship between Shylock and Antonio, but it is quickly and disappointingly stubbed out. Soon after, Antonio is hard and unattractive, whilst being at times frighteningly close to a nervous breakdown. Perhaps the director thought that taking two new approaches to Antonio would be too much for the audience to take, because she does make clear (does she ever!) that the love between Antonio and Bassiano goes far beyond even the strongest heterosexual friendship. By keeping Antonio both gay and un-likeable, we end up with both the gayest character, as well as the character played by a black actor (Gratiano), being the most bigoted.

The sparseness of the stage decoration helps to emphasise the moments of extreme physicality. Jamie Ballard’s convulsive torment in the moments before his expected execution is intense, but the most shocking moment of the play occurs when Antonio tells Shylock to ‘lend it rather as to thine enemy’, taking the menace to a new level as he grabs Shylock by the throat and spits three times into his face. Besides Antonio and Shylock, Ken Nwosu does well in the lesser role of Gratiano and Patsy Ferran as Portia is also excellent, although perhaps not really beautiful enough for the part. Her ‘which the merchant and which the Jew’ line, played for laughs as she says it facing the two men, one in a skullcap, allowed for a moment of brotherhood between Shylock and Antonio, as both roll their eyes at the idiocy of the young jurist sent to decide their case. Tim Samuels is a riotous and riveting Launcelot Gobbo, almost singlehandedly putting the humour back into a play that has largely lost it.

Makram J. Khoury
Makram J. Khoury as Shylock is the standout performance, making up for the predictable characterization and making the production truly memorable. The nobility of his character is fully realised, but so too is his fragility. Dressed like somebody’s grandfather, shuffling along and with shaking hands, his physical weakness in contrast to the young hooligans of Venice helps to clarify the life of communal contempt he stoically endures and the terrible vengeance he feels entitles to take after the Christians have humiliated him and destroyed his family. This solitary obduracy gains tragic grandeur combined with his physical frailty. We cannot get around the fact that killing a person for not paying a debt is bad. But so too is Shylock’s treatment by the Venetians. The laws of Venice are his only chance to attain a semblance of justice and that justice is not only taken away, but new injustices are heaped upon him. When Shylock’s justice is denied, we see the limits of state sanctioned equality. No matter how cosmopolitan the laws of Venice claim to be, Jews like Shylock will never be equals as long as men like Antonio call the shots.

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