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May 29, 2012

The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 2: The Production

Follow-up to The Merchant of Venice (Habima) @ Shakespeare's Globe. Part 1: Outer Frame from The Bardathon

It’s impossible to divorce context from production. Immediately after Dromgoole left the stage, still being applauded for his pre-emptive shutting down of protests, the actors of Habima emerged onto the Globe stage and called for a welcome, whipping the audience immediately into further applause, foot-stamping and cheering. After taking a bow, the actors, dressed as Renaissance-era Italians, donned bright red carnival masks and began singing, dancing and creating a festive atmosphere. This revelry continued as Jacob Cohen’s Shylock entered the stage and, in high spirits, the Christian carnival-makers surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly in the stomach. Only at the point of violence did the crowd fall silent; but how easily the same jubilant ribaldry that had been targeted at Friends of Palestine was co-opted into the abuse of a Jew. Habima usefully pointed up the ease with which we are told what to think and can become implicated in abuse and suppression.

How many, I wonder, noticed the audacity of audience members who could shush a Palestinian protester and laugh at him as he was escorted out of the theatre to calls of “Piss off”; and then turn and nod sagely as a Jewish protester (in the trial scene) was silenced and mocked by Gratiano as he was escorted out? What has been learned from a production so concerned with suppression, if suppression is taking place within the auditorium?

Habima’s fine production of Merchant pulled no punches in its depiction of anti-Semitism, with both Shylock and Tubal manhandled and abused as a matter of course by a group of selfish and wasteful Christians. Alon Ophir’s Antonio, in particular, was sickening. This tyrannical figure refused to sit in Shylock’s chair, decorated with a Star of David, and grabbed the frail, elderly usurer by the throat as he vowed he would abuse him again. Even while trussed up in the trial scene, he leered down at Shylock, a smile of satisfaction playing on his lips as Shylock’s plans were thwarted.

The “bonds” of this production were made literal on two levels. Ropes and pulleys hung all around the set, used initially to demonstrate Portia’s (Hila Feldman) entrapment. Standing on a chair centre-stage, her six suitors gathered around the edges of the stage and held the ends of ropes attached to her corset, positioning her at the centre of a tangled web of controlling attachments. For the trial scene, Antonio was placed on the same chair, but stripped to his waist and clipped to ropes that snaked up the pillars and across the yard, literally strung up by bonds that linked the entire building. Into these same bonds Shylock was later forced, hanging limply amidst the jeering Christians.

The other bonds were physicalised as reams of computer printouts, contracts to be signed by Antonio in the first instance, but also by Bassanio, who was presented with a disturbingly realistic head representing Portia and an enormous wad of contracts, which he began scrutinising instead of kissing her, to her dismay. The focus of the men on letters and contracts was a running theme, revisited at the end as Nir Zelichowski’s Lorenzo failed to look once at Liraz Chamami’s Jessica once he had received news of his (his) good fortune. The massive contracts also became Shylock’s punishment, Gratiano draping them over Shylock and leaving him to stumble, slowly and blindly, offstage following the trial.

The prejudice running throughout the production was not always held up to adequate critique, however. While Portia and Nerissa’s dismissive attitude towards Jessica extended to even forgetting her name, Jessica’s disappearance at the production’s close left unresolved a growing problematisation that remained unclear. The biggest change to the text was the creation of a conflict between Jessica and Lorenzo that saw her threaten to leave him, and was alluded to throughout the ring incident as she screamed at her husband, but I was unclear as to exactly what she was objecting to, and the sadness she showed on hearing of her father’s misfortune was kept upstage and unremarked. Far more problematic was the treatment of the suitors. The establishment of these scenes was entirely amusing, as a team of sycophantic make-up artists and tailors dressed actors up in stereotypical national costume. However, Danny Leshman blacked up as Morocco, covering himself in black make-up which even rubbed off on Portia, to her disgust. The laughter at this was disturbing, and the production didn’t seem to have a point to make here about racism, leaving this problematic device uncriticised and, apparently, amusing to much of the audience. A similar, though less loaded, approach informed Yoav Donat’s appearance as Arragon, moustachioed and screaming “Ole!”

The casket scenes were otherwise amusing. Human actors played the caskets; for Morocco, an actor wore the gold casket on his head and carried the others; while Arragon and Bassanio were both presented with three independent caskets. Morocco removed the gold box from his man’s head to reveal the actor wearing a skull that snapped at his fingers. Arragon unveiled a fool carrying the poem in his mouth; and this fool subsequently sprang up and began mimicking the distraught suitor. The collective mockery of the foreign suitors by the assembled court and the Death/Fool heads fed into the critique of the Christians’ prejudice more broadly, but the cartoon caricatures of Morocco and Arragon stood in problematic contrast to the dignified Shylock.

Cohen, diminutive and quietly spoken, was a victim through and through, only taking command of the stage during the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech where he roared defiance at Salarino and Salerio (Leshman and Donat again, interestingly bringing the bodies of the three racially abused victims together) who backed up in shock at the effect of their ribbing. Elsewhere, the performance aimed for pathos. We were privy to his moans on discovering Jessica’s flight, and the production closed with Antonio casting a satisfied look over the abandoned stage and leaving, followed by Cohen emerging and taking a long, slow walk around the edges of the stage in utter silence. Similar pathos was aimed for in Jessica’s performance, as following her flight she was seen repeatedly in tears, ignored or scorned by the Christians.

Despite all of the above, this was for the most part a highly amusing production. The high energy of the Christians was combined with a physical inventiveness, particularly in the representation of gondolas by actors standing in a line and side-stepping in sync while one pretended to row. Tomer Sharon’s Launcelot was extremely entertaining throughout, debating freely with the audience in his first appearance, snogging the disembodied false head of Portia’s counterfeit, and interposing himself inconveniently between Jessica and Lorenzo. Yet he was also the only character who paid Jessica attention; immediately before the interval, he sat downstage with her and they watched together as Antonio pleaded with Shylock for succour.

A group next to me were aghast during the trial scene, crying out as Shylock went to take Antonio’s flesh, which rather spoke to the vulnerability of the strung-up bodies presented. The scene struggled to recover following the interventions from the pit of “Hath not a Palestinian eyes?” and the subsequent jeering of the crowd as more protesters were evicted; and perhaps because of this, the role of Portia and Nerissa, who were kept to one side of the stage, seemed relatively unimportant. I was drawn throughout the scene instead to Aviv Alush’s Gratiano, who moved freely about the stage and mocked Shylock mercilessly, as well as appealing to the Duke and Advocates who stood in the audience galleries. Alush’s overt prejudice throughout the scene, and Shylock’s slow collapse under his assault and the smug glares of Antonio, seemed to be far more important.

Rinat Matatov’s childlike Nerissa (strikingly reminiscent of Shirley Henderson) was a sometimes sullen, sometimes sparkling counterpart to Feldman’s upright Portia throughout. The servant took pleasure in bringing a knee to Gratiano’s groin following his loss of the ring, and in teasing her mistress about Bassanio in earlier scenes. Yet women were sidelined throughout this performance, left rather to punish their fickle men either directly by slapping or indirectly by walking out. Happy endings were denied as the banter and laddish mockery of women and foreigners found no place in Belmont, which demanded maturity. Yet as the men all fell to their rings and letters, devouring material possessions to the exclusion of their wives, it was clear that the selfish nature of these men would resist education.

Have I silenced the protests? Certainly the bulk of the protests were themselves silent, and for much of the first half I and those around me divided our attention between the action on stage and the silent stance of the group in the middle gallery with masking tape over their mouths, who did not reappear for the second half (perhaps removed). The performance of the protest in the pit and galleries drew the attention of all, and the actors themselves were clearly aware of it. Interestingly, however, the content of the protests during the performance was not directed at Habima themselves as far as I could see, concentrating on the broader “Free Palestine” message than challenging Habima’s own complicity in performing to Israeli-only groups in the settlements. By remaining silent and using few words, the protests insteade aimed to draw attention to their act of resistance, attention they maintained (even when rendered inactive) for the entire performance. The final applause of the company lasted a long while, a mutual celebration between audience and actors of the successful completion of the performance. Yet anyone watching carefully, who had listened to a production that spoke eloquently of the silencing of dissenting voices, should have had serious questions about the anger with which the performance’s own dissenters were greeted.

May 27, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Writing about web page

Rupert Goold's new production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC has already caused something of a stir in the press, dividing critics and audiences alike. Despite the presence of a star name in Patrick Stewart in the cast, this was not the traditional Merchant that many may have hoped for, but rather a full-scale reinvention of the play that offered an ugly, frank, hysterical and provocative presentation of alternative issues thrown up by this problematic play.

The production was set in Las Vegas, with the audience arriving to find a casino evening already in full swing, presided over by an icon of a busty table girl splayed out as if a crucifix. Money was this production's church, and an ensemble of American tourists were already hard at the craps table. A live big band kept up a rollicking underscore, building in volume and speed until Jamie Beamish rose from the masses, a Launcelot Gobbo as Elvis impersonator, who launched into "Viva Las Vegas" accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad dancers. The tone was set for the evening - noisy, brash, colourful and irreverent. Beamish's Launcelot burst into song throughout the production with covers of old standards, keeping the crowd entertained and the atmosphere light; yet as a more sombre mood began to permeate the performance, so did the songs begin tending towards ballads and a darker sensibility.

The Merchant of Venice

The company made a huge effort to make the concept coherent. All the cast put on American accents, some with more success than others - Howard Charles and Aidan Kelly were wonderful Brooklynites as Gratiano and Solanio, while Portia and Nerissa were note perfect as Southern belles. Others were horrendous, and Scott Handy in particular, as Antonio, kept slipping between his native and adopted dialects. The frustration is that English accents wouldn't have been a stretch for an audience willing to buy into the conceit. Shakespeare sounds wonderful in natural American accents, but to watch English actors concentrating so hard and internalising their performance in order to get a voice right was deeply irritating, and meant that less effort went into the performances themselves. It wasn't a fatal flaw, but one wished that the actors had just used their natural accents.

Locations were intelligently re-set. Shylock, Solanio and Salerio met in an cafe where hookers were taking their morning coffee; the masquers rode to meet Jessica in a mimed car with blaring rap music; deals were struck in the lavish offices of casino managers; one beautiful sequence saw the Sallies discussing Antonio's fall in an elevator with other characters coming and going; Antonio was arrested by Shylock at the Cirque du Soleil, where the merchant was hiding in the front row of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre while a trapeze artist twirled above; and Launcelot battled his conscience while sitting on a slot machine stool, while two PVC-clad women in white and red acted out Conscience and the Fiend. There was an issue of too much time going into ingenious settings and not enough into the dynamics of the scenes themselves - when the stage finally quietened to allow dialogue scenes of two or three characters talking, the play felt comparatively flat and under-rehearsed. As the play went on, though, the nuances of the performances began to manifest themselves.

The most fascinating aspect of the conceit was the recasting of Belmont as a TV reality show called "Destiny", which aimed to marry off Portia live on air. Susannah Fielding was the blonde star, Emily Plumtree the programme's host, and the two were surrounded by video screens, cameras and backstage flunkies. The two women sat on a sofa and spoke in deliberately affected tones, pausing for canned laughter and groans as they reported the characters of the suitors. Each "episode" ended with the two speaking a catchphrase direct to camera. The deliberate superficiality of the format gave a satiric slant to the sequences, but darker elements could gradually be viewed beneath. As Chris Jarman's Morocco, a boxer, jogged on stage, hecklers threw bananas at him in an ugly moment of racism; but far more troubling were Portia and Nerissa's own fixed grins as they stared pointedly ahead towards the camera. As soon as Morocco left and the studio lights clicked off, Portia's face collapsed and she shuddered as she wished that none of his complexion might ever win. The latent racism in the character extended to the extremely patronising treatment of Caroline Martin's Jessica, to whom Portia spoke as if a little child. Nerissa and Portia aimed to give Jessica a makeover, but this particular session ended with Jessica storming out eating the cucumber which had previously been resting on her eyes. Jason Morell's Arragon, meanwhile, was a Mexican cleaner who was beckoned by a stage hand onto the set, dressed up and forced to perform and wave gormlessly at the cameras.

Fielding's performance was the standout of the evening, creating a complex and deeply scarred persona whose gradual decline was fascinating to watch. In early scenes there were clues, as she scrabbled at her head and shook convulsively after the cameras had moved away. This was a Portia broken by the enforced performance that defined her, which culminated in her song of "Tell me where is fancy bred" to Bassanio as he chose between the caskets. The caskets themselves - made up like gameshow boxes - had previously yielded a diamond-encrusted skull and a shrivelled jester's head; but the lead casket delivered a remote control to Bassanio, with which he turned on a screen that revealed Portia speaking the victory verse. As the screen Portia did this, the stage Portia removed her blonde wig (to gasps from the audience) and stepped off her enormous high heels, baring herself before her new husband. At the same time, all the paraphenalia of the reality show disappeared, including her entourage. A confused Bassanio greeted her with a kiss but continued to look around in confusion; while she looked pleadingly at him, asking him to see the true her beneath the performance. Upon the re-entrance of Gratiano and Nerissa, she hastily threw on her wig and shoes again, appearing slightly more dishevelled but unable to confront the world without her disguise.

The vulnerability displayed by Fielding in this moment informed the remainder of her character. Her performance in the court scene was unpersuasive - we had seen too little of the character's intelligence and spontaneity to believe "Bellario's" quick-thinking reactions during the trial, even if Fielding and Plumtree both effectively conveyed the panic of the two women outside of their carefully-controlled setting. More powerful, however, was the look on her face as Richard Riddell's Bassanio embraced Antonio, and then after his release held him tightly in a downstage corner. One could see her heart breaking as she sized up the connection between the two men, a connection which entirely excluded her. Upon the return of the two men to Belmont, Portia's face again fell, and she continued to watch the two men casually touch one another and speak of their love. She sat between them on a couch, and as Antonio offered to pawn his body for his friend, the two men took hands behind her. Trembling, Portia got up, took up her wig again and slipped on one of her heels. Summoning up a fractured remembrance of her gameshow character, she excitedly distributed prize envelopes to Lorenzo, Jessica and Antonio, her voice rising in unhinged excitement. Then, following Gratiano's final lines, she slid off her wig in despair and, as Launcelot began trilling "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" she began dancing slowly with her fake hair, stepping on and off her one remaining shoe. It might not have been subtle, but it was a heartwrenching depiction of rejection and failed trust. Portia's risk in exposing the girl beneath to a man she loved had been too great, and there was nothing left for her to cling to but the remnants of the disguise that had always defined her.

While Portia provided the most powerful emotional through line, the other performances were largely also strong. Patrick Stewart was fine as Shylock, bringing a quiet dignity and occasional oddities to the role. The issue of anti-semitism was largely subordinated to wider concerns of racism and superficiality, but Stewart (first revealed playing golf in his office) became more identifiably Jewish as the play progressed, appearing at home in a yarmulka and whispering a Yiddish goodbye to Jessica; then later appearing in robes for the trial scene. An anger manifested itself at times, including in a passionate dance before the interval hit and in his shrugging off of his robes and callous laugh after his "conversion". Considering that Stewart is an obvious star name, however, Shylock felt rather incidental to this production, operating as a driving force for the plot rather than as the central attraction.

The trial scene was imagined as a mob execution, carried out in a cold room beneath one of the casinos, where police officers in the pay of a local gangster (Des McAleer's Duke) put Antonio on a box and tied his wrists far above his head. This was the scene that struggled most in the modern setting, but still had some wonderful moments, not least Shylock pulling forward the silent Arragon, now back in his cleaner's garb, as an example of the abuse of other peoples by the "Venetians". The build-up towards Shylock cutting into Antonio's flesh was painful, with Portia's intervention being left until the last possible second.

This production will be talked about for years, and represented a triumph for director-led concept theatre at the RSC. While it will no doubt offend many, and while Goold still needs to give the same attention to actors that he accords to design and concept, this was a truly revolutionary Merchant that found new life in the play beyond Shylock's tragedy and made the powerful case that, ultimately, it's impossible to find any redemption in a society so concerned with surface. All that glisters really isn't gold.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

April 11, 2011

Bond (Taiwan BangZi Opera) @ The Hyatt Regency, Bellevue

You'll notice that Bellevue is off my normal reviewing route. While attending the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America just outside Seattle this week, I took the opportunity to catch a special performance by the extremely prestigious Taiwan Banzi Opera Company of Bond, its retelling of The Merchant of Venice.

The scheduling of the performance directly after the conference Opening Reception - which featured an open bar - was perhaps not best conducive to my enjoyment of the performance. Nor, must I admit, were the tonalities of the music and singing to my taste. I found this an audibly difficult and tedious aural experience, which is no reflection on the excellent performers but rather on my own unfamiliarity with the musical form.

The opera, two hours in length, was split into four scenes: the establishment of Bassanio's quest and making of the bond; Bassanio's selection of Portia's casket; the trial; and the ring exchange. The stripping out of the subplots (no Lorenzo, Jessica or Launcelot) made this a linear and uncomplicated story, a series of causal events oscillating between Venice and Belmont.

The four main characters were all played by women, although Shylock and Antonio were still heavily made up as men. Chien-hua Liu's Bassanio was the most heavily feminised of the male characters, visually mirroring Ya-ling Hsiao's Portia. This Bassanio was childishly naive, simpering to his friend when asking for support and bewildered during the trial. Mei-li Chu's moustachioed Antonio, on the other hand, was a pragmatic and confident businessman who strode and blustered, an austere opponent for Shylock.

The diva of the opera, Hai-ling Wang, was the production's highlight as Shylock. The play's conflict between Jews and Christians was here recast as that between Saracen traders and the native Cathayans, and any religious aspects to the feud were occluded. Shylock was a comically villainous figure, deilberately vindictive and interested only in money. He twirled an abacus, clowning with it as he taunted Antonio, and whispered knowingly to the audience. Yet there was more going on too; a companion Saracen goaded Shylock on in the trial sequence, pushing him to greater acts of cruelty despite Shylock's own initial discomfort, and abandoning him at the point of the turn.

The "Hath not a Saracen?" speech was relocated to the trial scene, performed before the seated pairing of the Duke and Portia, with commentary from the two Sallies who watched from the sides. I appreciated the formality of the court and Portia's calm control of the law; her caveat was delivered in a spirit of absolute preparedness.

The love plot was less invested, with the love between Portia and Bassanio immediate and easy. When Bassanio looked unlikely to choose the correct casket (here visually realised as differently-hued birdcages) she hinted clearly towards it, and the ring trick was resolved in a spirit of good humour, a gentle joke rather than a learning experience. The banter between the coy Nerissa and the more comically aggressive Gratiano was a welcome relief here, providing a comic energy that broke up the lyrical love-talk.

As I've said, this wasn't to my taste and I found the shallow treatment a little unsatisfying. However, this seemed to me to achieve highly within the conventions of the form. It offered an intelligent reorganisation of the play that subordinated the complexities of plot to the musical expansion of character motifs, and what was lost in depth was made up for in formal style. It's certainly an approach I'd be interested to see again; though perhaps before rather than after the wine.

January 31, 2009

The Merchant of Venice (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

After some rather poor Shakespeare at the end of 2008, I have to say that it's a relief and a pleasure to begin 2009 in the company of Propeller and their thoroughly interesting Merchant of Venice. It's been a couple of years since I was wowed by their Shrew in Stratford, and happily Edward Hall and his all-male company seemed to have lost little of their wit or invention.

Relocated to a prison called Venice, this production made the most of its setting, a three-tier barred Jailhouse Rock prison with courtyard space surrounded on three sides. The commercial exchanges of the play became backhanders to guards and other prisoners; the bargains in love became homoerotically charged negotiations over protection and allegiances; 'religion' was tattooed in crosses onto chests and necks and barely-contained violence threatened to erupt at every juncture.

The prison itself was fascinatingly out of time and place. Slave songs and a white-suited governor evoked the chain gangs of the deep American South; accents suggested Porridge; a drag queen gyrating behind bars recalled the silhouettes of Chicago. It was a prison in which Shylock could keep his daughter to clean his toilet and where bargains between prisoners were upheld by the ruling authorities. In short, it was a fascinating world, and the constant movement of background prisoners hinted that the action of the play was only a small part of the wider politics and games in a corrupt institution.

The biggest movers and shakers in this prison were Bob Barrett's Antonio and Richard Clothier's Shylock. The opening set them up in opposition from the off, as the Duke (Governor) brought the prisoners out of lock-up and demanded "Which is the Christian and which is the Jew?", causing the two men to stand forward and face off, before Antonio used his opening lines as an apology to the Governor: "I know not why I am sad". Antonio was a big man among the prisoners, followed by a line of retainers both intimidated by and loyal to him. Violent and moody, he held a switchblade to Shylock's throat during their negotiations and led mocking laughter at the Jew's 'kindness'. His weakness, unsurprisingly, was Jack Tarlton's Bassanio. Bassanio knew how to manipulate the older man, putting his arm around him and stroking his head as he asked for financial help. Antonio's desire for Bassanio was knowingly doomed; Bassanio's tastes were for Portia's feminine drag than for Antonio's burly masculinity, yet Bassanio was not above using Antonio's love for him to get what he wanted.

Shylock was perhaps even more ambiguous than Antonio. A long-term prisoner with guards in his pocket and a live-in daughter, he was spat on by the 'Christian' gang and, ultimately, had his daughter and stash stolen from his cell after Lancelot, a guard in his pay, took Bassanio's better offer and transferred his allegiance. Yet one could never have sympathy for this Shylock. Left alone with Sam Swainsbury's leery Salerio (a conflation of Salerio and Solanio) after the thefts, Shylock's sociopathic tendencies emerged. He punched Salerio to the floor, tied him to the bars of a cell and proceeded to gouge out his left eye, holding it in his hands with a panicked look as he began "Hath not a Jew eyes?" in a darkly humorous pun that was simultaneously painfully tragic. The ambiguity of Shylock was effective, painting him as neither sympathetic nor villainous, simply no better nor worse than anyone else in the prison. However, while effective, it also lessened the impact of this plotline; the outcome was of less interest than that of the Portia plot.

Portia, played extremely effectively by Kelsey Brookfield, was a fantasist, a queen entering by gyrating to the whooping screams of convicts. The whole 'Belmont' scenario, involving 'suitors' having to pay wads of cash to enter her game, was a cry for attention, a show put on for the convicts which the guards indulged. Yet Portia him/herself remained affecting, a girl looking for love and surprisingly reluctant to claim the eventual victor's kiss. The charade in which she engaged was most pointedly realised after Bassanio's victory, when Lancelot suddenly entered as guard and blew his whistle. Instantly the prisoners cleared the room of the caskets etc., and Bassanio, Portia, Nerissa and Gratiano picked up buckets and began floor-scrubbing duty, continuing their conversation as they worked. The world of this play was tiny, with all the characters sharing the same living space, leading to fascinating juxtapositions, such as an early enmity between Portia and Antonio, loathing each other over their shared interest in one man.

A further level of interest came from Portia's hinted-at connection with the prisoner governor, who hung up his white jacket to signify the stake of a 'father', and who recognised her in disguise during Antonio's trial. The hint appeared to be that the vast sums being paid in order to 'woo' Portia were the condition by which the governor would release his own claim on Portia which (if that was indeed the case) added a fascinating extra dimension to her imprisonment. As the trial ended, the governor paused before the 'doctor' for a long beat before leaving the stage laughing to himself, a slightly sinister acknowledgement of the all-seeing power he wielded over his inmates.

There were aspects of the play which worked less well in the prison setting. Morocco and Aragon, for example, had their scenes run together as if the company itself acknowledged that they needed to get these functional scenes out of the way, and the two performances (while not bad) relied on the usual racial stereotypes and thick accents for the comedy, rather than attempting to fit the roles to the setting. The caskets, too, were oddly accompanied by playing cards which Nerissa laid before them to no apparent effect - the 'Queen' signified Portia, but it required each of the suitors to open the casket, interpret the artefact within and pick up the playing card, which was all rather too confused and unnecessary - for the audience, as well as the actors, as it detracted from the more important symbols within the caskets themselves. Having a prison mug-shot of Portia in the lead casket, however, was priceless.

The performances were generally very strong, though Propeller are particularly good at recognising that the effect of the ensemble as a group is far more important than any individual performance. Richard Frame's bewildered hard-man Gratiano was exceptionally good, and his relationship with the similarly-proportioned, yet dragged-up, Chris Myles as Nerissa was a comic highlight. Gratiano was greeted by a terrifyingly enraged Nerissa on his return to 'Belmont' in the final scene, the spurned partner punching Gratiano, grabbing and twisting his crotch and generally showing him that, while Gratiano may be the trouser-wearing half of this partnership, Nerissa wasn't to be trifled with. Despite the violence, the male-male relationships were far more tender than the one heterosexual partnership, that of Lorenzo and Jessica. Jessica, the always excellent Jon Trenchard, took her conversion to Christianity badly; mocked by Lancelot as she attempted to sing with the prison choir, she quickly grew to resent Lorenzo and the culture she had been stolen into, and resisted Lorenzo's attempts at romance.

The centrepiece trial scene was well-realised, partly due to the presence of Babou Ceesay's Duke. While the Duke had often patrolled the upper reaches of the prison in earlier scenes, keeping notes on his charges, here he finally took centre-stage, and with him present the danger felt paradoxically greater. Where it had been hitherto every man for himself, and therefore everyone equally cautious, here the Christians had to restrain themselves and each other from intervening for fear of the Governor's presence, leaving Shylock free to pursue his bond, upheld by the authorities as prison honour. In this production, Portia's realisation of the loophole that would save Antonio came not a moment too soon, causing Shylock to drive his dagger into a board behind Antonio instead of into his heart. Thereafter, the scene became an official enacting of gang vengeance against Shylock, particularly bringing a smile to the face of the one-eyed Salerio.

The play closed on a reminder of the opening frame, with Antonio and Shylock facing off against each other in a possible reminder that prison life would continue, regardless of the play's events, with all the characters continuing to live together and pursue their fantasies of power and freedom. A fascinating Merchant, rich in meaning and often powerful in execution.

April 11, 2008

The Merchant of Venice @ The Courtyard Theatre

The Merchant of Venice has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I love the fact that the play can so easily and excitingly be used to confront so many issues: anti-Semitism, homosexuality, gender oppression, racism, child abuse and more have all been dealt with in productions I've seen. It's also one of the very few plays that can be effectively played both for laughs and for tragic effect. It's a great play, with a rich range of possibilities for directors to choose from.

It's disappointing, then, that the RSC's new production of The Merchant of Venice is so, for lack of a better word, dull. There was no overarching vision for the play that I could discern, no new interpretation or spin, no real direction or focus for the production. Despite some cracking design ideas and the occasional spark, I left wondering why director Tim Carroll had taken on the production at all.

A uniformly red stage with a balcony provided a warm canvas for the action, and the design was often stunning. The most impressive part of the production came with the concept for Belmont. The three caskets rose from the floor, huge ice blocks on top of podiums decorated in gold, silver and lead. Suitors inserted icicles into their chosen casket, causing a spotlight to shine on the top of it, allowing them to read the hidden inscription. Meanwhile, Portia was revealed in a discovery space veiled, dressed in white and surrounded by hanging icicles. This all led to the exciting moment when Bassanio went to claim Portia with a loving kiss. As he touched her lips, the door to the discovery space slid shut, cutting her off from view, and with a loud crash the three blocks of ice all disintegrated. The removal of the ice which had often surrounded Portia up until this point was a visually interesting signifier of the change in Portia's state.

Other design elements were also visually interesting, if more superfluous. Dozens of broken shards of ice were lowered from the ceiling for the night scene in Belmont, casting dappled light around the auditorium and creating a fantastic sense of space and the outdoors for Lorenzo and Jessica's romantic conversation. The balcony wall also had the ability to move up and down to create new layers of space in the upper acting area. This was used horribly during the scene between Gratiano and the disguised 'lawyer' and 'clerk', moving up so you could only see the actors from their hips down. This was presumably to emphasise the visible rings, but felt gimmicky and tacked-on. More effectively, during the Belmont scenes the wall was raised slightly to reveal a row of wine glasses, half-filled with water, stretching the width of the stage. Disembodied hands dipped their fingers in the water and 'played' the glasses, creating a beautiful and eerie sound that perfectly suited the fairytale feel of those scenes. More gratuitously, the first act ended with red dye being added to the glasses in reference to Antonio's plight- a pretty image, but unnecessary.

It was the performances that let the production down. Throughout, there seemed to be very little in the acting to hold interest, and particularly in the first act the long speeches were horribly monotonous. Part of this was to do with the neutralisation of all the comic characters who usually stand out in the play. Gratiano and Launcelot were both suited and relatively sober, playing their parts as relatively serious members of Bassanio's entourage, and even Morocco and Arragon were both played straight. The performers playing these parts were among the stronger cast members (particularly Sean Kearns as Arragon, in an all-too-brief but excellent performance), but by removing much of the humour usually associated with these characters the first act became very dull, unfunny and slow (compare to the Globe's hysterical production, which also lacked depth but made up for it in comic energy).

Bizarrely, rather than take the comic opportunities afforded by these characters, Carroll instead chose to introduce odd bits of audience interaction such as having Nerissa point at audience members when talking about Portia's suitors (I was Fortenbrasse, the young English suitor, randomly!) and asking audience members to hold letters. These were funny, to be sure, but the seriousness of the in-play action only served to highlight how incongruous these sections were.

Angus Wright's Shylock epitomised the strengths and weaknesses of the production. Well-spoken and thoughtful, this Shylock spoke in a matter-of-fact, almost quizzical tone throughout with very few changes in tone. It was an interesting and unusually dignified interpretation, but dramatically quite uninteresting. Even his final ruin at Antonio's hands was met with little more than a shrug, leaving me unsure as to what Shylock's role in this production actually was. Yet Wright brought out some great moments in his performance in contrast to this stoicism - his cackles of glee when he heard of Antonio's misfortune, and his defiant tearing off of his shirt as judgment was pronounced, mirroring his appearance with that of the half-dressed Antonio.

This characterised the production as a whole - moments of brilliance, such as the ice design, but let down by a lack of purpose and monotonous tone. The performers worked hard, but on the whole it didn't feel to me as if there was anything at stake. The trial scene particularly lacked a sense of danger, with only Gratiano's lunge at Shylock providing a moment of tension - the rest of the time, the complaints of the onlookers felt more like mild protests than a life-or-death situation. At the other end of the scale, there wasn't a huge amount of passion in the love stories - Lorenzo and Jessica, for example, barely even looked at each other as she descended to join the masque, let alone embrace.

The strongest in the cast was Georgina Rich as Portia, who brought a confidence to the role which, by the final scene, had established her as the central character. Combining an early sadness with a desperate hope for Bassanio's success, and fully embracing her own power once the ice had shattered, hers was the only performance that really felt like it had an arc, where the events of the play had a genuine effect on her.

I must admit, I saw the play in preview and so there's plenty of time for it to improve. The seeds for a good production are there - in the final scene, the performances suddenly sprung to life in a genuinely funny and moving scene, and I enjoyed the final dance/dumb show, which whirled past at a pace that came as a complete shock after 3 quite slow hours. I hope it improves, and I look forward to seeing what the critics said after last night's press performance. Ultimately, it wasn't an awful Merchant, it just felt pointless.

August 12, 2007

The Merchant Of Venice @ The Globe Theatre

The Merchant Of Venice is in trouble. In all the version I’ve seen of it on stage and screen, this “comedy” has become a very serious play, with one issue- Shylock. The Jew. The events of the early 20th century have unbalanced the play, drawing on the discussion of anti-semitism to turn this into the play’s all-overpowering main point, with the rest of the play relegated to the sidelines. The dour mood of this sequence in the new interpretation (which inevitably paints Shylock as imperfect but ultimately wronged) inevitably affects the rest of the play, souring the relationships of the other character and turning the whole thing (as in Theatre For A New Audience’s production) into a deeply depressing and emotionally difficult play.

So thank God for the Globe’s new production. It’s been reviewed badly by some critics who have criticised the play skating over the anti-semitism but, after all, it IS set in the Renaissance. Here we have a Merchant that isn’t about race or racism, but about a group of imperfect people who get themselves into increasingly ridiculous situations. It’s a comedy of relationships, it’s a tribue to unrequited love, and it’s a story of an old embittered man who takes things far too far, but it is NOT Shylock’s play. Considering the man’s only in five scenes, that seems to make sense. Rebecca Gatward’s production shows that the Merchant is not only relevant to us nowadays as a warning against racism or a tragedy, but can still exist on the English stage as a comedy, if an often uncomfortable one.

This is partly down to a negative, John McEnery’s performance as Shylock. Never quite summoning up the gravitas that usually accompanies his famous speeches about racism, McEnery becomes a doddery old man with a vendetta against the Christians disproportionate to any crimes we see or hear of. Closer to the stock villain mould, McEnery’s performance was uneven and somewhat uninspiring, neither evil nor understandable enough. It made it easy for the audience to laugh at him, but they could have given him a little more humanity without taking away from the comic thrust of the play.

If anyone’s, this was Bassanio’s play. While not the best performance, Philip Cumbus was pleasingly boyish as Bassanio- forgetting Portia’s name as he tried to wheedle money out of Antonio, jumping up and down in excitement and hiding in shame from Portia as she talked about the ring in the final scene. Cowardly and quick to escape blame, he pointed the finger at Antonio, accusing his just-rescued friend of forcing him to give up the ring, and in an incredibly funny moment he mimicked the voice of his nagging wife to the disguised Portia, to hysterical reception. Gatward’s reading of the Venetian Christians, as basically shallow boys, was not so different from that of Theatre For A New Audience, but here they were comically immature rather than dangerously emotionally stunted. He was ably supported by Mark Rice-Oxley’s motormouthed Gratiano, and the two men gave energetic performances as we followed them on their journey of discovery to a happy ending.

There weren’t many deep readings here. Antonio’s homosexuality was implied, and abused by Bassanio who kissed him as he agreed to help, but not built on to extremes as in Trevor Nunn and Michael Radford’s screen versions. Launcelot’s insubordination to Lorenzo was here just the petulant whinings of a servant, and even Jessica, who almost always nowadays seems to need to have a relevation about her Jewishness at the close of the play, seemed happy enough with her new husband, if shocked at the news of her father. The pleasure of this production was in the comedy, which saw a revolving skull and a jack-in-the-box jester greet the Dukes of Morrocco and Arragon in their trials and Solanio move through the groundlings as he described Shylock’s rantings of “My daughter! My ducats” to individual audience members.

One of the best moments came in the form of the Christians masque, played in full after Jessica’s escape. The vividly-costumed revellers acted out a very funny skit of the lovers’ flight; a demonic Shylock gestured wildly while a Lorenzo with huge dangling phallus distracted him and a whorish Jessica lifted his moneybags from his oustretched hand. A Christian priest then wedded the two, who proceeded to copulate wildly on stage. The real Jessica stood to one side with mouth open, appalled at the debauchery she was running away to join. Moments like this set this production apart- giving it depth and inventiveness without ramming the issues down our throats.

There were moments when I was troubled by the laughter of the audience- I’m not convinced that any audience, past or present, should be finding the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech funny. Reviewers complained that playing the play for its comedy as this production did is allowing audiences implicitly to express anti-semitic sympathies themselves. I disagree, and point to West End musicals such as Spamalot, which features an entire song sending up the Jews’ role in theatre. People dismiss the Globe audience as cretinous, but in this production it was a bitter old man they were laughing at, and his Judaism became a side-issue. If more directors can be brave enough to tackle the comedy of the Merchant, rather than continually rehashing the anti-semitism angle, then perhaps the play has a future after all.

March 29, 2007

The Merchant Of Venice @ The Swan Theatre

The ‘lasts’ are coming thick and fast. Gregory Doran, according to reports from his creative team talk, was frustrated at the focus on the ‘lastness’ of his production, it being the final play to be performed in the RST before its closure. Tonight, there were three more lasts. The last visiting (and international) company, the last play of the Complete Works in the Swan and, more personally to me, the last play of Shakespeare’s I had yet to see on the stage (apart from ‘Edward III’).

It surprises me sometimes that I’ve never seen ‘Merchant’ live, as I’m so familiar with the three main screen versions (Trevor Nunn’s production for the National Theatre, the BBC version and Michael Radford’s big screen version with Al Pacino). This production, however, stood well apart with its translation to the near future of America.

The three caskets that Portia’s suitors have to choose from were, here, three Apple Mac laptops with video screens suspended overhead, that played video clips to those who ‘opened’ them. Venice itself was a bank full of suited and deeply artificial business types, whose smiles hid an ever-present competitiveness that gave them all a very unpleasant feel- Salerio and Solanio in particular were only consistent in their two-facedness. Antonio’s repressed homosexuality was buried within his uptightness, and Gratiano was a frat boy in a suit, a deeply uncouth kid who Nerissa was arguing with almost as soon as they married.

This, however, was Shylock’s tragedy. Notable in the programme for this play was the fact that F. Murray Abraham was in every single production photograph, and the ‘Perspectives’ section was a list of quotes about anti-semitis over the ages. Of course, having an Oscar-winning actor heading your cast is bound to draw some attention, but the production went so far as to conduct the curtain calls initially without him, before he emerged to take a solo bow. As he told us in the pre-show talk, he actually rehearsed separately to the rest of the cast in order to further his sense of isolation, which came across splendidly.

F. Murray was spectacular, a truly moving Shylock, following in the footsteps of Henry Goodman and Al Pacino- he didn’t radically alter the part, but performed it admirably and with great feeling. In one shocking moment, Antonio spat at him from the chair where he was bound, and Shylock spat back down on him. This was a Shylock more than ready to take his pound of flesh, and it took Portia’s screamed “Stay!” to stop him.

The comic highlight of the production was Arnie Burton’s camp and fully-fleshed Balthazar, a flunky with an earpiece phone who flirted with Morrocco’s male pilot, moved about to try and get reception and gave a girly shriek when one of his precious laptops almost got broken. By contrast, Kenajuan Bentley’s Launcelot Gobbo (old Gobbo was cut) was embittered and deeply hostile to Lorenzo- his jokey refusals to do his work were here performed as direct defiance of the Venetian, and he shoulder-barged the preppy Lorenzo out of the way as he swaggered out. While deeply intriguing, it was never quite clear what caused this conflict- was he in love with Jessica, was he becoming complacent out of Shylock’s service, or was he reacting against supposed racism as a black servant? Every review has a different theory, and mine is simply that this was unexplained, a moment of style over substance.

That was, unfortunately, one of the overall feelings of this production. A great many fascinating ideas, but a feeling of unbalance and flashy style rather than dramatic coherence. Making Shylock the centre of a production is now commonplace- but of course, he only features in five or six scenes, and a production cannot stand up on him alone. The scenes among the Venetians occasionally became dull, and there seemed to be so many subplots, confilcts and agendas among the supporting characters that no one was fully borne out. A beautiful final moment as the cast drank champagne in celebration highlighted the flawed love in these unpleasant people- Jessica and Lorenzo had been fighting for some time, Nerissa was already disillusioned with Gratiano, Portia was still dressed as a man and Antonio stood alone, the lights lingering on him for a second as the rest of the stage blacked out. There are no happy endings in this ‘Merchant’, but these were the results of petulance, sudden decisions and quick twists in character rather than due to a sustained attempt at a clear through line in character development.

It was a very enjoyable performance, and the reaction it got from the audience was one of the best I’ve seen this year- a couple of standing ovations and rapturous applause from the VERY mixed audience (there were many people there who knew nothing about the play, but at the same time many of the long-term regulars were in too). It reminded me in style very much of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, which was mostly panned by the critics- and, as so often at the RSC, it was the prestigious central performance that seemed to make the difference. It was clear and fun, with an excellent Shylock and much cleverness, but in my opinion didn’t bring much new insight to a play that gives opportunity for so much more.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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