March 29, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

The Merchant Of Venice (Theatre for a New Audience) @ 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.

Posted in Theatre review