The Merchant of Venice
30 April 2015
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant Of Venice is one about which most people have an opinion. The story of the Jew, Shylock, who insists upon his bond and wants to extract a pound of flesh, is well known. Equally, the tale of the pretty woman whose father has ensured that her access to the family wealth is tied to the choice of cabinet made by her suitor: she can only marry the man who chooses the right casket. Both were tales that existed before Shakespeare appropriated them for his play, and both are clearly part of the zeitgeist now.
But, for a play about which most people have an opinion, it is interesting how diverse those opinions can be. Who is the titular Merchant? Shylock, Antonio or Bassanio? Is the play a comedy, a romantic comedy, a tragedy, a comic-tragedy, a tragic romantic comedy? Is Shylock evil, amoral or abused to the point of breaking? Is Antonio evil or amoral, offering a bond to his despised rival merely as a way of wheedling into Bassanio’s bed? Is Bassanio evil or amoral, willing to say and do anything to make his own future brighter? Is Portia evil or amoral, desperate to get a husband she can control, at any price? Is Jessica evil or amoral, willing to steal from her father and abandon her faith because of her own interest in Lorenzo? Is it anti-Semetic or not? Does anyone care because it’s just a romantic comedy?
It is these confusions and conundrums which cause people to consider The Merchant Of Venice a “problem play” or at least one which changes style and purpose as it proceeds. It’s also what leads to the myriad of opinions about the play and the fact that production after production can find a different, fresh way to examine the narrative, frame it and deliver it.
Jonathan Munby, whose production of The Merchant Of Venice opened yesterday at the Globe Theatre, has opted for a cogent, funny and sympathetic telling of Shakespeare’s play. It’s as far away from Rupert Goold’s recent vibrant, electric and garish staging at the Almeida as can be imagined. But it does not suffer for that.
Set firmly in its time, circa 1597, with costumes and accoutrements which establish an exotic, far away and, most importantly, bygone era, Munby avoids the great questions of the play and steers a course through the waters of sympathy, self-interest and capitalism. The result is a richly amusing take on the play, which is involving and clear, but which never achieves great heights of lyricism or drama, happily accepting “everyday” as its overall pulse.
The performance begins with a masque, a dance, a marriage and a street brawl – as two Jewish merchants are violently attacked, unprovoked, on the street. And thereby Munby sets his stall: a light comedy, with romantic overtones, which involves racism and money.
Shylock is presented as a tired old merchant, worn down by the abuse he suffers constantly by those who do not respect his religion. Antonio despises him and makes no bones about it. Portia is beautiful and tricksy, willing to do what it takes to get the husband she wants and place him under her thumb. Bassanio is a laddish rogue, the handsome, affable type with great mates who go boozing and carousing to excess, but with an eye to ways to make a quick fortune and the sure certainty that his physical charms can open doors. Antonio thinks he can buy his way into Bassanio’s bed just as Bassanio thinks he can charm his way into Portia’s bed. Both Antonio and Portia are willing to do anything to get Bassanio and Bassanio will say anything to wed Portia and keep in Antonio’s good books. Everyone is a racist, except Bassanio. Wealth is the Holy Grail for all.
The fun and frivolity comes from the supporting characters: a vainglorious Prince of Morocco; an effete, preening Prince of Arragon dandy; a smart, sensuous and knowing Nerissa; a bawdy, blokey Gratiano; a boisterous clownish Gobbo; a pining pretty boy Lorenzo. Stock character types to be sure, but played as if freshly minted, accentuating the comic possibilities.
In essence, Munby’s approach removes complexity from the play: everything is straightforward. Shylock is both good and evil, just as is Antonio. Just as it is wrong for Shylock to seek his pound of flesh from Antonio, it is wrong for Antonio to seek Bassanio’s flesh – both seeking a price for their provision of financial support. Shylock determines at the point of the loan to exact the price asked if he can; Portia knows she can destroy Shylock before the trial begins – both are motivated by a hatred of another religion and a desire for a particular way of life. Portia manipulates the outcome of the casket selection process just as Bassanio manipulates Antonio to fund his attempts to get Portia’s hand. Portia is happy to destroy Shylock to shore up her position with Bassanio just as Jessica is happy to destroy Shylock to shore up her position with Lorenzo.
This straightforward, and in some ways revelatory, production rips along, telling the story cleanly, efficiently and pertly. Every laugh is extracted. While poetical and insightful character is somewhat lost – especially in the trial scene which goes by at a whacking pace, the “quality of mercy” speech all but tossed aside as a casual bon mot – Munby interpolates other complexity. Jessica and Shylock deliver an entire speech in angry Yiddish, deftly establishing their alien status.
And just when you think the romantic comedy is over, Munby leaves you with a final image: Jessica keening, intoning a Hebrew song; Shylock being humiliated and fundamentally destroyed by being forced into baptism to the Christian faith. While Portia giggles coquettishly, the business with the rings having allowed her to show Bassanio who is boss in their marriage, Shylock suffers the fate she selected for him. Portia, the racist opportunist who chooses to destroy Shylock for her own interests. However funny things have been, the icy wind of consequence blows hard.
Jonathan Pryce is a calm, righteous and driven Shylock. This is no monstrous creation or Jewish caricature. No, Pryce finds the heart and soul of the man and with scalpel like precision reveals his inner strengths and weaknesses. The high point of poetry for the evening comes with his heartfelt “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, the words wrenched from his very soul. His confusion and despair about the betrayal by Jessica, particularly her theft of his jewels, is grimly, poignantly portrayed. Sensibly, he is matter-of-fact about Antonio’s fate in the Courtroom, which makes his sudden reversal of fortune all the more affecting. Playing not so much for sympathy but for understanding, Pryce presents a memorable, complete and completely flawed Shylock. The look on Pryce’s face when Shylock is spat upon is seared into my memory.
Daniel Lapaine excels as Bassanio, his skin as smooth as his patter and his teeth as gleaming as his self-confidence. This is a Bassanio who teases Antonio, talks about love, suggests the possibility of it, but only to get his own way. He is confident and arrogant in equal measure, his calculating mind always awhirl. His friendship with Gratiano is particularly well observed but then so too is his friendship with all the others in his entourage. He handles the verse well and Bassanio’s ability to charm, even while behaving badly, is excellently conveyed.
There are truly terrific turns from David Sturzaker as Gratiano (his opening puke is unforgettable) and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa (constantly alive, never missing a moment for a smart aside, a wry observation or a mirth inducing frown) and together they are completely blissful. Each makes their character throb with life. Doing throbbing of a different kind is Stefan Adegbola who easily stole the hearts of the groundlings with his genuinely inventive routines as Gobbo – his audience participation act is hysterical. His insults to Shylock are not physical, but because he has ingratiated himself with the audience, they bear a greater sting.
As Jessica, Jonathan Pryce’s real life daughter, Phoebe, is splendid. Full of pain and grief, yet wildly, passionately in love with Ben Lamb’s boy-next-door Lorenzo, she has a difficult role, one that is easy to throw away. But Pryce, with admirable precision, highlights Jessica’s choices, motivations and consequences with clarity and real style. Lamb gives her good support and there is no doubting that their love comes from a deeper romantic place than that of the other lovers in the mix. There is a lovely moment, as Portia and Nerissa return to their home after the deception at the trial, when Nerissa is asleep on Lorenzo’s chest – it’s the single moment of unrestrained romantic truth in the entire play and nicely sets up Jessica’s final moments, as she contemplates the price her father has paid because of his involvement with her new friends.
The ghastly/perfect dreadful suitors of Portia, Scott Karim and Christopher Logan were delightful. As the Arabian Nights caricature of caricatures Saharan Prince, Karin was a flashy swirl of silk, turban, scimitar and beard. You almost expected to see a magic carpet parked outside with his retinue. Swarthy and smarmy, obsessed with wealth, Karim is genuinely funny, while underscoring notions of racism. But the true show-stopping turn came, unexpectedly, from Logan, whose brilliant Manuel meets Blackadder turn as the fey, frivolous Prince of Arragon excavated laughs from every line and rightly sent the crowd into paroxysms of joy. This production is worth seeing again simply to savour Logan’s terrific performance.
There is good work from Michael Bertenshaw as, first, Tubal and, then, the outraged Duke of Venice and Philip Cox as, first, Balthasar and then Chus. Regé-Jean Page (Solanio) and Brian Martin (Salarino) work well too, completing one of the best casts assembled for the Globe in some time.
The roles of Portia and Antonio are key to the success of any production of this play and, indeed, in some productions the entire play can revolve around how they are played. Here, Munby has opted not to make either a particular focal point, a decision which has its advantages and disadvantages.
Dominic Mafham imbues Antonio with both avarice and hatred and his lust for Bassanio (but also Gratiano and others) is quite clear. He is a rich, dirty, racist old man – no nobility card is played here. This works perfectly well until the trial scene, but there and after, some of the possibilities the role offers are not available, given the choices Mafham has made. For the first time, I found myself wishing that Shylock would take Antonio’s pound of flesh and suffer the consequences.
But that was not just about Antonio – Portia was equally a cause. Rachel Pickup, a perfectly pretty and nimble Portia, came across as more scheming and manipulative than insightful, instinctive and courageous. Her participation in the trial scene was not the magical moment it can be – no, this was a trial where Portia knew what the outcome could be from the outset and set about, for her own ends, to achieve that outcome. Pickup was at her best in her exchanges with Myer-Bennett, and their initial exchange about the hapless suitors who chose not to look at the caskets was very funny. She works well with Lapaine but there is never a sense of true passion between them, and the final post-trial scenes play out as games rather than romantic silliness and whimsy.
It’s a very surface Portia this one, which entirely suits the production, but which leaves one wondering whether greater depths could have been exposed by Pickup. Her verse speaking is rushed but comprehensible, causal but not beautiful. She is a Portia for this production, not for the ages.
Mike Britton’s design is simple but effective, with golden gauze hangings billowing in the night breeze to great effect. The costumes are terrifically detailed and evoke the sense of sumptuous wealth that is ever present. Jules Maxwell provides interesting and tuneful original music which augments the sense of the scenes that feature it and there is some good playing and singing from the small band of musicians.
This is A Merchant Of Venice which will remind many that the play is a comedy, for it is very, very funny in parts. But the quid pro quo for that is a loss of spiritual and lyrical fire, especially in the ‘triangle” that is Portia, Antonio and Bassanio. But it has a formidable turn from Jonathan Pryce who makes Shylock that most frightening of villains: the ordinary, everyday, utterly wronged man. And turns from Phoebe Pryce, Daniel Lapaine, Christopher Logan, David Sturzaker, Dorothea Myer-Bennett, Stefan Adegbola and Scott Karim which light up the Globe with style and infectious laughter.
A simple joy. How often can you say that about The Merchant Of Venice?