The main problem I have with any production of The Merchant of Venice is that I don’t really like the play. However you dress it up, it’s anti-Semitic, and that may not have been much of a problem when Shakespeare wrote it, but it sits ill now. This production doesn’t shy away from it – several of the characters spit in Shylock’s face, to audible gasps from the audience – and makes clear the reprehensible nature of their attitudes towards Shylock. But the outcome of the trial, with Shylock’s goods forfeit because as an “outsider” he threatened the life of a citizen of Venice (even one as vile as Antonio) and then being required to convert to Christianity in order to retain any of his possessions, and the triumphalism of Antonio’s friends, always feels wrong, as if the outcome should have been different but Shakespeare had to write to the mood of the times.
As one of the interviewees said in the pre-show sequence, Shylock behaves honourably throughout. He seeks to be treated fairly and as an equal rather than be despised solely for his religion; he challenges the prejudice with reason (“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”), and he asks for nothing more than his due under Venetian law for the contract Antonio willingly signed. But Antonio’s friends, and the Duke of Venice (Duchess in this production) paint him the villain for so doing…..and even for refusing money rather than insist on his bond (which runs counter to the stereotype his enemies have been pushing throughout), And the scene after Shylock’s daughter Jessica has run away, where he is apparently more concerned with the value of a ring and money she has taken than with the loss of the girl herself, seems to undermine much of the work that’s gone into building the positive aspects of Shylock’s character this production is trying to bring out.
Much of the humour in The Merchant of Venice feels even more forced than in most Shakespeare plays, but this production didn’t push it, even thankfully cutting completely the hideous scene where Launcelot Gobbo torments his blind father. Gobbo’s comic turns are tinged with absurdity and pathos (the actor’s face painted as a clown), and the set-up for the “hilarious” coda, where Portia and Narissa reveal the completely gratuitous “ring” trick they played on Bassanio and Gratiano in the previous scene, cuts any humour with some unsettling undertones (this bit always feels like it was tacked on as a funny ending – the dramatic climax is the conclusion of the trial, and everything after that feels superfluous). The RSC are usually pretty good at wringing all the laughs they can get from Shakepeare’s comedies, but Director Polly Findlay seems to have backed off on this one and treated it more as a straight drama (apart from the Prince of Aragon – that’s all about playing for the laughs, and very welcome it is).
The staging here is striking:a bare stage and backdrop of brass sheets which reflect the actors and audience, with a giant pendulum ball swinging throughout (I don’t know what it was supposed to represent, but it looked good). I liked Patsy Ferran’s Portia – girly and fun in the early scenes, tormented through the trial and Bassanio’s betrayal, and with clear diction dancing lightly over the dialogue. Makram J Khoury, a Palestinian-Israeli actor, is a sympathetic and convincing Shylock (though the words were occasionally lost in his accent).
So I find it hard to be objective about this broadcast event, but for the most part that’s not the fault of the production – for me, it’s the play.