The Merchant Of Venice
by William Shakespeare
In The Ghetto
On a clear April evening, TLT and her (fully-paid-off) coupé made their way to The Merchant of Venice, the well-known legal loophole play (we want Portia - Rachel Pickup - not Mr Loophole, for any future driving charges!).
But to the case in hand: Director Jonathan Munby’s well-judged production, with fine ensemble cast playing, pitched at the exactly the right level to hold the attention of an international Globe audience, draws out every ounce of comedy with double-takes, pauses and clever interaction with the audience.
Designer Mike Britton gives us a luscious oil painting Venice of rich russets, filigreed and solid gold, velvety purples, greens, blacks, startling scarlets, swaying peachy brown gauze surrounding Portia like harem veils.
Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) seeks money from Antonio (Dominic Mafham), the eponymous Merchant of Venice, to pursue the hand of Portia, still controlled as a chattel even from the grave by her father as she is entered into the marriage stakes.
Instead Antonio agrees to act as guarantor when Bassanio borrows from Shylock (Jonathan Pryce), confident of being able to repay any loan at the appointed date. However when his ships and cargo are reported shipwrecked, Shylock demands the pound of flesh in the contract ratified when Antonio was sure of his fortune.
The Merchant of Venice still remains, at heart, difficult - viewed as both a subversive and conservative play, vulnerable to different interpretations. As vulnerable as a bare-headed Shylock in this version, his scarlet cap, a mark of his place in the Venetian hierarchy, ripped from his head, leaving him defenceless, an alien without the rights of a citizen in a slave culture.
However, as Portia disguised as a lawyer/judge asks tellingly at the play’s climax, raising an instinctive late bitter laugh from the audience, “Which is the merchant here and which is the Jew?”
Who knows if this is the modern gloss or if the ambiguity was there for Shakespeare’s audience?
Yet, in this production of great clarity, the three businessmen, Antonio, the merchant guarantor, the previously spendthrift Bassanio and the moneylender Shylock are as bound tightly together as three men thrown off the side of a ship in a barrel.
This is a modern Shylock in a world of medieval savagery, unable to stop himself sinking to its level. A man who seeks to be “loved” in the business den of Venice, alongside other businessmen. Yet as his attempts are frustrated and his anger grows, betrayed by a tremor in his voice, he becomes a trapped animal. Robbed of his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) and other chattels, pursuing a civil law case without the insurance of state support, then branded a criminal.
Nevertheless, it seems to us to go strangely against the grain of the play to bring it to a definite close with an evangelically white-robed Shylock brought to the baptism font. Rather than allowing the actual fate of Shylock (plus his dependent borrowers left without their Jewish moneylender), and even of Venice itself, to hang outside the play unseen, as in the original text.
Especially when Bassanio and Gratiano (David Sturzaker), husbands of Portia and her handmaid Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), easily sacrifice vows to their wives and wedding rings in favour of those they suppose to be a Doctor of Law and his clerk who have won the case for Antonio. A whiff of chatteldom and corruption to the still very strong end.
Still, a minor quibble in an otherwise imaginative production, with magical comic touches, delighting the audience. Jonathan Pryce gives a finely-nuanced performance as the moneylender, who has come to represent the play, in the midst of a uniformly strong ensemble. A green light.