THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 27 March, 2007
Seeing The Taming Of The Shrew
and The Merchant Of Venice
within a few days helps bring focus to the question of which is
Shakespeare's knottiest play for a modern audience. While much of Shrew's misogyny can be finessed
aside (though not as easily as many directors think), the only
alternative to sanctioning Merchant
as an anti-Semitic play is to claim that it's just the characters in it
who are anti-Semites. All of them. Vocally, repeatedly, and cruelly.
This is the interpretation offered in Darko Tresnjak's modern-dress
production for the New York-based Theatre for a New Audience, visiting
Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the RSC's Complete Works strand.
Tresnjak makes some interesting connections: Launcelot Gobbo mutates
from a clown into a persecutor once he leaves Shylock's employ, defying
even his own new master Lorenzo who has eloped with the Jew's daughter.
Shylock's own hatred is a matter of conditioning: when he accuses
Antonio of "spit[ting] upon my Jewish gabardine" and "void[ing] your
rheum upon my beard", F Murray Abraham pulls out a handkerchief to dab
the imagined phlegm away, as if through repetition his response has
become reflexive even when the actions are only recalled in
imagination. In general Abraham indicates Shylock's alienness by giving
him an excessive fondness for physical gesture.
This is a dog-eat-dog world: when two minor characters discuss the
commercial misfortunes of Shylock's victim Antonio, they chuckle like
city traders at the downfall of a colleague/rival. (It may even explain
the otherwise uncomfortable fact that, apart from the exotic character
of the Prince of Morocco, the African-American members of the cast play
only servants and supernumeraries.) But I cannot believe that
Shakespeare meant his audience to recognise and condemn this brutality;
he was a writer of immense subtlety and complexity, but nowhere else
does he work even remotely in this way.
Tresnjak's production includes a host of little up-to-the-minute
behavioural tics which are generally not to my taste, although Arnie
Burton, turning the normally anonymous Balthazar into a hyper-efficient
gay PA to Portia, steals scenes regularly and deliciously; in contrast,
Kate Forbes' Portia herself does not make much of an impression of any
kind.. What the show does, and enthusiastically, is to fulfil the brief
in TFANA's name: to make Shakespeare live for those not familiar with
it, to make it vibrant and contemporary without (quite) going all Baz
Luhrmann. Those who do know the play may wince that TFANA have also
adopted one of the most famous Shakespeare misquotations, "All that
glitters [sic] is not gold."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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