The Merchant of Venice
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
June 20 2015
The Jew has the knife. The bond has been scrutinised; the worthy lawyer has granted him his pound of flesh, the forfeit agreed when the three thousand ducats were loaned. The tall, handsome man, the love of the Merchant’s life, is there, appalled, terrified, desperate, but unable to help. He has offered money, his own breast for the knife, but the Jew has refused. He wants his bond.
The Merchant takes strength from the presence of his lover. He is there; that is all that matters to the Merchant. He stills the crowd, takes off his shirt. There is suddenly quiet, the crowd stilled by the unfolding horror. As he is tied to the chair by the Court bailiff, the Merchant whimpers, knowing his death is imminent. But the handsome man is there. He takes momentary solace in that. The Jew turns, the knife glistens in the light. The Merchant starts to hyperventilate, the fear and inevitability from separation from life – and the handsome man – overwhelming him. It’s painful to watch, near torture. No, it is torture. The Merchant starts to gag with the horror of the moment. It looks like he might have a heart attack before the Jew’s knife touches him.
The handsome man is bereft, inconsolable, the personification of shattered love. The Jew is determined, seeing the Merchant as the embodiment of all of the agonies with which Christianity has plagued him. The Merchant is beyond breaking point, practically insane with fear. It is only then, when all three of the men who have plagued her life have been truly revealed, that the handsome man’s new wife acts to stop the Jew wielding the knife.
This is Polly Findlay’s mesmerising and revelatory exploration of the darkest crevices of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice, now playing on the RSC’s main stage. This is the third major production of Shakespeare’s “problem play” in the last year: Rupert Goold’s extravagant version for the Almeida (having started on the same stage as Findlay’s version back in 2011) and Jonathan Munby’s penetrating, deeply funny version at the Globe having paved the way.
By some margin, Findlay’s production is the winner. In her hands, the play does not seem problematic at all.
There is one big caveat to this: the costumes, if you can call them that, a raggle-taggle collection of mismatched, garish and Ill-fitting garments, more jumble sale than consciously styled aesthetic, are appalling. Absolutely appalling. Annette Guther’s work here does its best to derail Findlay’s vision, but the sense of directorial purpose and the talented cast rise above the shreds and patches that tarnish the stage.
Johannes Schütz, on the other hand, provides a marvellous set. It’s simple, but extraordinarily effective. There’s a single, impressive wall which, when lit by Peter Mumford’s brilliant lighting, can appear as a huge mirrored surface, creating the impression that the audience is reflected in the onstage activities, or as a bank of stacked gold ingots, allowing the mercenary activities of the merchants and the power that wealth carries in the play, to be a constant, but unobtrusive reminder.
Findlay seems to have taken her inspiration for the production from the text and, in particular, this, well known section:
All that glisters is not gold,
Often have you heard that told;
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled:
Fare you well, your suit is cold.
Those words hold the key to all of the major relationships in Findlay’s production. Antonio, the titular Merchant, sells his soul (the pound of flesh from near his heart, anyway) to Shylock for Bassanio with whom he is all-consumingly in love. Jessica sells her soul (her heritage, her father) for the promise of love with Lorenzo, but when he has her wealth and property, he shows his cold disinterest in her. Bassanio sells his soul by betraying his lover, Antonio, and using him to secure a bride and a fortune; he then betrays his wife, and will continue to betray her, the sacrifice that Antonio was prepared to make for him having made him see where his love truly lies.
Portia too has sold her soul. She falls for the glittering exterior of Bassanio and sells her soul by betraying her father’s wishes. She pointedly cheats in the matter of which casket Bassanio should choose and this is her ultimate undoing. Left to the fates, Bassanio might not have chosen the right casket. But she chooses her gold and quickly discovers that Bassanio’s real interest lies elsewhere. That changes her.
The venom with which she spits out the line “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” demonstrates the reality. This Portia comes to Court not to see justice done, but to destroy the trio who have, in her mind, conspired to deceive and entrap her: Bassanio, who has lied about his sexuality and intentions; Antonio, who is the real love of her husband’s life and who has arranged the finance which brought him to Belmont for the farce that ended in their union; and Shylock, the Jew who loaned the money to Bassanio.
The Court scene here, electrifyingly intense, raw and gripping, is not about anti-semitism or justice or cleverness: it’s about revenge. Portia’s revenge. She could save Shylock, but she doesn’t. She could spare Antonio’s agony, but she doesn’t. She could ensure Bassanio does not suffer, but she doesn’t. She knows her life with Bassanio will be full of pain and duplicity, so she takes her chance when it is offered.
The action post the Court scene can be difficult to pull off; it seems straightforward topsy-turvy romantic comedy. Some productions make that work, some don’t. Here, those scenes are not played for either romance or comedy. No. Findlay shows the unravelling of the bad choices already made: Jessica regrets abandoning her faith and her father for a cold, hard, unloving man; Antonio regrets financing Bassanio for now he must share him with Portia; Bassanio regrets having been found out for what he truly is.
All of this is refreshing and fascinating. Findlay breathes complexity and assuredness into Shakespeare’s play by focussing on sex and greed. But there is no shortage of hatred either.
Shylock is played as an old man, a wily but hard working Jew who has been abused and degraded, merely for his faith, by the Christian merchants of the Rialto. So used to being spat on is he, that he does not flinch anymore when it happens, and he is slow to win away the expectorated muck, experience indicating that more will killed follow. This is a Shylock used to being humiliated and despised simply because he prays differently, doesn’t eat Pork and values his wealth and entrepreneurial activities.
When his daughter is stolen from him, and she takes with her some of his money and jewels, he breaks – the long life of bitter abuse proves too much for him and he sees a chance for revenge in enforcing the bond against Antonio, one of the colleagues of Lorenzo, the man who took his daughter. Shylock here is not a caricature; he is a heart-broken father, pressed beyond endurance. Neither revenger – Shylock nor Portia – benefits from the seeking of revenge: each are diminished by it. Unhappiness and loss of wealth, love and standing are what they have in common.
Seen the way Findlay sees it, The Merchant Of Venice is a contemporary and thrilling drama. There are some good laughs provided by Gobbo (an inspired Tim Samuels) and Brian Prothero’s ageing, grandee Aragon (splendid in every way) but in other respects this is mostly a roller-coaster of fear, sex, greed and betrayal. It does not feel problematic in any way – it is a bold and stimulating production of a play everyone thinks they know. Findlay does not reinvent Shakespeare here; she lets Shakespeare speak boldly, viciously and timelessly.
Small touches make for telling nuance. The caskets dangle from the ceiling, like forbidden fruit. A huge silver ball, perhaps a pendulum counting down time, perhaps a symbol of the pawnbroker, swings relentlessly, suggesting inevitability: it is activated by Portia and reflects the momentum that follows her actions. Bassanio flourishes cocaine, promising it to Gratiano for the journey to Belmont – does he need the drug to see him through his “courtship”? Bassanio, full of powerless rage, empties the six thousand ducats he has brought to Court to pay off Shylock all over the Court – they cascade everywhere, a useless blanket of paper money in a place where only words count.
Findlay has cast the piece faultlessly, which always helps. Makram J. Khoury is wonderful as Shylock. This is not a big “star” performance; nor is it loud, ugly or attention-seeking. The big “Doth not a Jew” speech is gently delivered, all the more compellingly for that. Khoury very much underplays Shylock, making him older and more feeble physically, worn down by oppression and hatred, but capable of quick wit and firm resolve. The constant abuse he suffers makes his inhumane stance in Court understandable and his final shuffle off the stage, in the darkness of penury and Baptism, was heart-breaking. A Jew much put upon; a cardigan wearing victim whose main sin is the one thing the other main characters never even try to achieve: being true to his self and his beliefs.
Jamie Ballard is in tremendous form as the wracked, heart-broken Antonio. His love for Bassanio shapes everything he does, and Ballard is utterly convincing in every aspect of his performance. Both Acts of the play start with his isolated Antonio, awash with grief or fear, and the final image sees him sitting, silently alone, waiting to face a life he will be part of but doesn’t want – sharing Bassanio with Portia. In the Court scene, Ballard is astonishingly raw and quite magnificent.
As Portia, Patsy Ferran is exceptional. Her Portia is complex and multi-faceted, a tough, wonderful and glorious woman. Ferran handles the language beautifully – the Quality of Mercy speech is particularly fine – and she conveys the highs and lows of her character’s journey with sublime ease and startling acuity. In her revenge-driven performance in the Court scene, Ferran is near feral, harvesting the character’s inner rage to tremendous effect. She gives a wonderfully original performance of one of Shakespeare’s most impressive women.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd has the looks, the physique, and the swagger to make the play’s golden boy, Bassanio, magnetic and compulsive. He is gold, but not always glittering: he unearths the darkness, the simplicity, and the devious nature of Bassanio cleverly, all smiles, smouldering looks and seductive eyes. The definition of smooth talker, Fortune-Lloyd’s Bassanio is the queasy cream-puff at the centre of the table of riches Shakespeare’s play provides. Together with Ballard, Ferran and Knoury, Fortune-Lloyd is part of the vital, compelling heart of this production.
There is superb work from Scarlett Brookes (a frightened, scarred Jessica), James Corrigan (excellent as mean-spirited, grasping Lorenzo), Nadia Albina (superb as the delightful Nerissa), and Ken Nwosu (an oblivious, anything goes Gratiano). The roles of Solanio and Salerio are often thrown away, but not here. They are both clearly part of the “gay Mafia” that surrounds Bassanio and Antonio. Findlay displays Salerio’s disgust at Bassanio’s marriage with fastidious campiness and, at the start of the play, Saighal’s knowing and sexually provocative stalking/walk towards Antonio starkly sets the tone for the crucial gay themes in the production.
Rina Mahoney brings down the house as Portia’s “with all convenient speed” servant and makes for a formidable Duke later in the play. Marc Tritschler provides splendid and atmospheric music, which is all played and sung expertly – the child choristers were especially pleasing and surprising.
Findlay’s production of The Merchant Of Venice, like all great productions of Shakespeare, is brimming with ideas, spoken with assurance and intelligence, and illuminates the text insightfully and vigorously. She makes this play seem freshly minted, it’s ideas and sentiments as relevant to contemporary society as they were around 1598 when Shakespeare’s words were first registered in the Stationer’s Register.