The Merchant Of Venice is one of those plays of which the first question asked is not "How good is this production?" but rather "How does it deal with the problem of such-and-such?" Gregory Doran's acclaimed RSC production, which has now made the seasonal migration to London, pulls off an achievement we had largely forgotten possible: he takes no sides, neither whitewashes nor demonises either Shylock or the gentiles ranged against him, and still emerges with a vibrant, compelling reading of the play.
Philip Voss's dignified Shylock is neither sympathetic nor villainous innately, but acquires such characteristics only in the context of people and events around him; his idea for revenge against the gentiles who have seduced away his daughter comes to him in mid-speech, and his ultimate humiliation is to be left on the ground, unable to gain purchase to raise himself because he keeps slipping on the strewn ducats he has earlier spurned. Julian Curry and Scott Handy as Antonio and Bassanio demonstrate not so much a strong vein of homoeroticism as plain and simple evidence of an intimate relationship; Handy is perceptibly more playful, as if assuming a role, towards Helen Schlesinger's Portia (he even takes the mickey out of the verse metre). The shadows in Act Five come not from the solitude of Antonio, but rather tensions between the newly eloped Lorenzo and Jessica (Dominic Rowan and Emma Handy). Even Jimmy Chisholm's Launcelot Gobbo succeeds in making one of the unfunniest of Shakespeare's now unfunny clowns funny.
And lest we should forget to ask that first question: it's excellent.
Written for The Stage.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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