Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Theatre: The Merchant of Venice (★★★)

By William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
Designer Michael Hankin
Lighting designer Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound designer Max Lyandvert
Featuring Jo Turner, Damien Stouthos, Fayssal Bazzi, Shiv Palekar, Jessica Tovey, Catherine Davies, Mitchell Butel, Jacob Warnet, Felicity McKay and Eugene Gilfedder
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until August 26

The first clue to how this Merchant of Venice was to be treated was not long in coming, and impossible to miss.
The characters kneel in sombre rows for the Lord’s Prayer, while, in their midst, two figures, non-participants in the rituals of devotion and power, stand faithless the midst of the faithful.
Shylock, the Jewish financier, and his daughter Jessica.
So, as it has been for two centuries at least (though it was not intended to be originally), Shakespeare’s crafty little romantic comedy is, instead, made to be about the grinding against each other of culture and belief and the scouring of the outsider.
Harold Bloom puts it perfectly; The Merchant of Venice is not a play about Anti-Semitism – it is simply a profoundly anti-Semitic play. And the problem when staging it, the clash of modern sensibility and four-centuries-old theatre-making, is wrapped up in Shylock.
It’s worth remembering that the next play Shakespeare brought to the stage was Henry IV; Falstaff, the great deviser, was just around the corner. Shylock is no Falstaff, but the power of independent personality, soon to explode in the fat old knight, is in him, and, ironically, he fatally unbalances the play.

Shylock (Mitchell Butel) only speaks 355 lines, a mere 13 per cent of the play (Portia has 22 per cent – even the forgettable Bassiano has more – and Falstaff almost twice as many) but they are so memorable, and offer such opportunity for actors, that he dominates a play in which he is, in Shakespeare’s original intent at least, not much more than a functional comic villain. (Shakespeare’s contest with the recently dead Christopher Marlowe, and his character Barabas in The Jew of Malta, is often referenced – Shakespeare, it is argued, tried to write another Barabas – but wrote him too well.)
The result, for those two centuries, has been the “humanising” of Shylock – no bad thing in itself, of course, but a dramaturgical disaster for the play, because, if Shylock bleeds when pricked, laughs when tickled and is vengeful because wronged, then why does Antonio spit on him in the street and, even more unsettlingly, why does his daughter steal from him and abscond? He is no Barabas, murdering sick people under the walls and poisoning the wells, but a man much wronged and, certainly, disrespected. If he takes his revenge too far, his rights are only thwarted by a legal nicety, not Portia’s eloquent but completely ineffectual “quality of mercy” speech (which sways neither Jew nor Christian to give it).
The director Anne-Louise Sarks is clearly aware of these issues and works hard to find a balance between Shakespeare’s intention and subsequent interpretation. The most striking example is the insertion of a heart-rent mea culpa from Jessica at the end that does not appear in Shakespeare’s text – acknowledgment that she, her lover Lorenzo, and the rest of her crew have treated her father disgracefully.
Throughout the rest of the play, though, the worthies of Venice behave as the amoral, Jew-baiting arseholes they are, and it’s hard to enjoy their shallow romantic shenanigans.
They, admittedly, are staged and performed with skill and energy on an open stage. Jessica Tovey and Catherine Davies’ Portia and Nerissa have coquettish fun with their hapless suitors (if Shylock is a warm up act for Falstaff, so Portia is for the greater Rosalind, only a few years away), and Jacob Warner’s Launcelot Gobbo, while not, I suspect, to everyone’s taste, delivers plenty of snivelling fun.
The gallivants of Venice, though, from the oddly unmercantile Antonio (Jo Turner) down to the grasping, spendthrift Bassanio (Damien Strothos), Gratiano (Fayssal Bazzi) and Lorenzo (Shiv Parker) are so reprehensible as to make really memorable performances of them well nigh impossible.        

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