More Merchant of Venice – Antonio’s character

When I wrote the Film Post about the RSC’s broadcast of The Merchant of Venice a couple of days ago, I tried to formulate a sentence about Jamie Ballard’s performance as Antonio. I couldn’t distill the thought into a sentence that made sense (not at that time of night) but it’s been nagging me since, so i’m going to try to use this post to get my thinking straight. I’d welcome any feedback, comments or observations on the post, whether you’ve seen the play and the performance or not.

Some context and background. When I write the film posts, if I can get them out quick enough I try to avoid reading or hearing any critics’ views first. I’m very aware that I’m influenced by what other people say, so I’m going to try to keep it to what I think, for whatever that’s worth. I try to check facts (like getting the actors’ names right) and spelling (though I think I did spell the name of the corporation in Terminator: Genisys incorrectly – sue me). Irritatingly, having avoided all reviews of Jurassic World before posting, when I listened to Mark Kermode’s review on the BBC (which was broadcast before I saw the film) it sounded like I must have plagiarised him – honest, I didn’t, it was all my ideas.

However, after I posted the piece on The Merchant of Venice (or TMoV, as absolutely no-one refers to it) I checked a few online reviews. And I realised that trying to get that pithy, one-line comment on Jamie Ballard’s Antonio would have been a waste of effort – it’s more complicated than that. So, let me see if I can unravel my thoughts on it.

In Thursday’s post I described Antonio as “vile”, and I think he is. His attitude to Shylock is purely anti-Semitic (he’s one of the people spitting in Shylock’s face) and he’s the one whose emotional blackmail forces Bassanio to break his vow to Portia and give up her ring to the “lawyer” (Spoiler Alert: it’s Portia disguised as a man, for anyone who doesn’t know) in one of Shakespeare’s less funny and utterly pointless sub-plots,

But here’s the problem. I’ve said “vile”, but my liberal sensibilities insist that I have to clarify what I’m talking about.

Because in this production, the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is spelled out as openly gay. Apparently this has been a subtextual reading of the play over the years, but not usually set out so clearly in productions. They kiss several times, Bassanio’s decision to woo Portia becomes an act both of rejection of Antonio and also one of denial (seeking conformity in the rigid Venetian society), and his desperate efforts to save Antonio’s life during the trial now have the panic of a lover rather than just a friend. The “humour” of Portia disguised as the male lawyer is undercut when, having saved Antonio’s life, she watches he and Bassanio (her new husband) kiss in relief and passion, and then she has to deal with the pair of them arriving back at Belmont where the deception over the ring can be revealed. With that context, that scene is not funny any more.

To be clear – and for anyone who knows me, I really don’t have to spell this out – I have no issue with Antonio being gay. I don’t think it defines his character – his vileness comes from the hatred of Shylock, his love of money, and his selfishness. But with this reading of the relationship between him and Bassanio, his actions are driven largely by his love and a desperate hope to keep that love going even after Bassanio has won the contest for Portia’s hand.

The production opens with Antonio standing alone on stage, weeping, and Jamie Ballard spends much of the production in tears. Is Antonio a weak character? Is the production implying that he’s weak because he’s gay? Or does his weakness come because he is gay in a society that would (presumably) not accept that, and so he weeps from the torment of the “love that dare not speak its name”? He sobs uncontrollably when faced with the prospect of death at Shylock’s hand: is that fear of death itself, or of the loss of love – that he’ll die in front of Bassanio without a final word or kiss?

When I came out of the broadcast, I really didn’t like Antonio one tiny bit, but something about the performance and the interpretation has been biting at me ever since. As I’ve written this post, and explored the idea further, I think I’ve changed my mind. He’s tormented, conflicted. He knows his love is doomed. Is that what drives his hatred of Shylock – he converts his own inner turmoil and (possibly) self-loathing into an attack on an obvious target, which makes him outwardly just like all his fellow Christian merchants?

I’m sticking with “vile” – this reading maybe provides an explanation but not an excuse.

Which raises several more questions in my mind – how much of my reaction is to the character, how much the performance, and how much is due to the way I watched it, as a broadcast into cinema? I’ve seen a couple of productions of MoTV before, and barely thought about Antonio. The core characters in the play are Shylock and Portia – they are the most interesting, and have the best speeches. But the tile is “The Merchant of Venice”, and that is Antonio – it’s all built around him. This production makes him more central, more of a driving force for the action, driven as he is by love for Bassanio.

And you can’t ignore Jamie Ballard’s tears and anguish (his fear of death is hard to watch) – he never allows Antonio to slip into the background. It’s a memorable performance, and making that character memorable can’t be easy. As I said earlier, I came out hating Antonio, and I disliked Jamie Ballard’s performance, but now I think that was unfair to the actor. Having written this post.and wrestled with it some more, I think the performance is good: it just results in me noticing Antonio for the first time, enough to come to the conclusion that he is….vile,

Do I feel this just from watching the broadcast? In the theatre you are distanced from the actors, and you choose where to focus your attention. At any given moment you could be watching the backdrop, or an actor in the background, or looking around at the audience. In a cinema, that doesn’t happen – you’re watching the screen, and that’s telling you what to look at, even in a broadcast stage play (for those who’ve never seen one, it’s not just plonking a camera down in the middle of the audience: it’s done like a live television production, with four or five cameras giving you the angles, the actors all wearing microphones, and the production effectively “edited” live). You get the close-ups – “look: he’s crying real tears” – and the camera is pointing in the right place for you to pick up the suibtle or hidden looks. That will enhance some aspects of a performance but detract from others: the dialogue will come to your ear perfectly, whichever way the actors are facing and without the extraneous noise of the audience, but that “Big Acting” that’s aimed at the back of the gallery can come over as too strong and hammy. So maybe I took against Jamie Ballard’s performance on the night just because the camera made it too big – it probably doesn’t come across like that in the theatre.

On Friday night I was in Stratford to see the RSC’s production of Othello. It’s being broadcast to cinemas next month, so I’m intrigued to go and see it there and, for the first time, have a direct comparison. Could be another post to come on that.

Does any of this matter? Not really, I guess. Each director and actor approaches a play in his or her own way, and so does each member of the audience  But that one sentence I was trying to write on Thursday has turned into 1400 words in this post, as I’ve explored a few of my ideas about the character, the performance, the production and the medium. Which has made it an interesting exercise for me, at least (and if you’ve read this far, thank you for your patience and perseverance – I’m glad I didn’t lose you 1000 words ago).

I’d be more than happy to hear anyone else’s thoughts on any of this.

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