THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Theatre, London E8
The Arcola Theatre has a deserved reputation for adventurous
programming and successful productions, but its main house is less
accommodating than it looks. The low-ceilinged yet cavernous former
clothing factory, when it is configured in more conventional theatrical
arrangements (as, with this production, in traverse), tends to
encourage overplaying in order to fill the space, although such a style
is often at odds with the material.
Opened 14 September, 2007
Here, Julia Pascal's meditation upon The
Merchant Of Venice requires personal intimacy as well as the
playing of public rituals such as the climactic trial sequence, but
apart from Paul Herzberg's Shylock, few of the company manage such a
distinction. It does not help the third Merchant I have seen this year
attain a distinctiveness for itself.
Nor, surprisingly, does Pascal's treatment. She has a long and
successful record as a writer/director of using classic texts as the
backbones for examinations of aspects of Jewish history and identity,
from a harrowing Dybbuk to a
reimagined Yiddish Queen Lear.
Here, though, she diverges far less than usual from the core text. We
see virtually all of Shakespeare's play, with a few short dialogue
additions, some vague movement sequences and the perfunctory framing
device that the performance is a dress rehearsal by a modern-day
English company taking place in the Venice ghetto in front of a single
tourist, a survivor herself of the Warsaw ghetto and who narrowly
escaped the Nazi death camps.
This part is not simply written for, but utilises the actual biography
of, actress Ruth Posner. Posner can be magnificent, as in the Queen Lear; here, despite being
invested with her own back-story, she has oddly little to work with.
After the initial scene-setting, she merely has a few brief
interventions urging Shylock's daughter Jessica not to convert to
Christianity, and strangely not a peep during the trial. Nor does it
help that the dramatic levels are fogged: we cannot tell when players
are Shakespearean characters, when English actors, when imagined
carnival or Inquisition figures, or what is being examined or imagined
by whom or reverberating against what else. In particular, issues of
Jewish identity and anti-Semitism are located almost entirely in the
extraneous material; they seem scarcely at all to penetrate the
problematic Shakespearean text itself. I never thought I would be
accusing Julia Pascal of timidity in this respect.
Written for the Financial
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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