I have been trying to remember how long it is since I saw a performance of The Merchant of Venice and it seems to have been 1989, when we saw Peter Hall’s very traditional production, with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, and Geraldine James as Portia. I recall very little about the production other than Hoffman being a passable but not interesting Shylock (also, one who needed to understand the difference between ‘wet’ and ‘whet’ when sharpening a knife) and Geraldine James being so skittish I wanted to nail her feet to the stage to make her stand still for more than two seconds. (Also, the audience was filled with pretentious idiots – the one who loudly described Hoffman’s performance as being ‘mellifluous’ quailed somewhat when he happened to notice a small woman with a large plaster cast on one arm staring at him rather hard. It is possible that wearing a plaster cast during a sweltering summer was not improving my mood.)
Before 1989, we saw Nigel Terry as Shylock and Fiona Shaw as Portia, in 1982, in a Royal Shakespeare Company touring production, but god forgive me, I can’t recall much about that production at all, other than Shaw dressed in legal garb, so I assume that Terry’s performance did not set me on fire the way his Benedick did. (It was brilliant. Funnily enough, I have no recollection of Shaw’s Beatrice.)
Back in 2015,and the Royal Shakespeare Company presents a new Merchant of Venice for our delight. My first thought was that this was possibly going to be another crowd-pleaser. Since Gregory Doran took over as Artistic Director of the RSC, I’ve felt that the company was taking the easy option in its choice of plays – Richard II, Henry IV Pts 1 and 2, and the Love’s Labour’s Lost/Found pairing. The last two, in particular, were rather disappointing. Conservatively directed and designed, and with a strong sense of their being jemmied into a WW1 framework to bring in a bit more money at the box office, what with anniversaries and all that. However, while the productions were a little bit too stiff upper lip and patriotic for my taste, they were distinguished by excellent acting and some good bits of business. The end result, though, was tepid.
The Merchant of Venice turns out to be rather different. It opens with a tearful Antonio on stage. Indeed, he’s on stage for some time before the play officially opens, standing awkwardly, pensive, and as it turns out, tears streaming down his cheeks. He is, it is noted, of a melancholic turn of mind, but at this stage, while his ships are late, they are not yet lost, so something else is clearly amiss. The clue is perhaps contained in the passionate kiss exchanged with his friend Bassanio, when he appears. Antonio has previously bailed out his friend, young, impetuous, extravagant, when he got himself into financial trouble. Now Bassanio is searching for money to finance an expedition to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress, and he has come to his friend – his lover? – for help. Which Antonio will of course give, because he loves Bassanio, but to do so means that if Bassanio wins Portia’s hand, Antonio will lose his lover.
We might pause here and wonder whether Polly Findlay is over-interpreting the love between Antonio and Bassanio, but Findlay seems very determined to make this a contemporary play in every way. The characters are in modern clothes, carefully dressed to establish their social positions straight away. Antonio’s and Bassanio’s fellow merchants look more like city wide-boys while Shylock, stripped of his Jewish gabardine, is dressed instead in a suit that has seen long use, plus a pullover under his jacket, for all the world like a small-town solicitor or faintly seedy academic. The women are all band-box smart, with the exception of Portia’s maid, Nerissa, who wears a more casual shirt-trousers ensemble.
It comes as no surprise, either, that the emphasis is always on money, rather than looking for love to trump cash. Everything has a price, and that price is made quite clear. Money constantly changes hands, or else flutters around the stage. It may be that Bassanio and Portia genuinely feel affection for one another, but we can never forget that Bassanio needs to make a good marriage because he is broke, and that, if we read this production as I suggest, he will doubly sacrifice Antonio in order to do so. We are left in no doubt that Lorenzo and Jessica’s match is one fuelled on the one hand by a desire for money, on the other by a desire for freedom, rather than anything romantic. We cannot be sure that they will live happily ever after, any more than we can be sure that Portia and Bassanio and Antonio will come to any sort of accommodation.
And then there is Shylock, played sympathetically here by the mesmerising Makram J Khoury. While Hall’s production hinted vaguely at the idea that Shylock might not necessarily be the villain of the piece, Findlay’s production addresses this directly. Twenty-six years changes many things, not least me as a member of the audience, sitting there, watching young men spit in Shylock’s face and growing more and more angry with what the play is saying. No, Shylock is not a good man, but neither is Bassanio or Antonio, or any one of the others. Antonio may be gladly presenting himself as the necessary sacrifice for Bassanio’s happiness, though there is nothing remotely stoical about the way in which he prepares himself for the surrender of his flesh, but I found myself thinking more of Shylock’s stubborn refusal to relinquish his bond even when offered thousands of ducats. It is, of course, the only shred of power or authority he can claim in all this. He has lost his daughter, been robbed by her, even to her taking a keepsake of his dead wife. Despite his best efforts, you might say, she has been ‘contaminated’ by Venetian society. And his best efforts have been directed towards preserving that which is familiar to him, a society which no longer exists. Thus, Antonio the merchant who rejects usury, who helps people in debt to Shylock, becomes the focus of everything that is bad about the world for Shylock. Khoury’s Shylock is screaming with existential pain as he gasps out his years of bitter treatment at the hands of a society that needs him but cannot bring itself to admit that he is a necessary part of that society. Khoury’s performance is intensely powerful, shaped, as he said in interview, by his own experience as a Palestinan Israeli. It’s impossible to watch it without flinching in distress.
And what of Portia? The heiress obliged by her father to go through an irksome guessing game with suitors in order to find a husband. Wise father, we might think, looking at some of the suitors who rock up at her door, including the antiquated Aragon (beautifully played by Bryan Protheroe, wittily employing a series of 1960s/70s comedy seducer tropes), and the young Prince of Morocco, who thinks just a little too well of himself. And yet, it’s clear that without a little help (ok, quite a lot of heavy signalling from Portia and Nerissa), Bassanio would make precisely the same mistakes as did his predecessors. He is young, enthusiastic, and bluntly as thick as two short planks, bless his little pointy head. His friends don’t help much, either. Perhaps only Antonio, older, maybe wiser, could guide him.
Patsy Ferran’s performance as Portia is astonishing. She seems physically tiny, with a heart-shaped face, huge eyes, quizzical eyebrows, and gives the impression of constantly suppressed energy, physical and mental. She appears to have spent a lot of time on her own – conversation seems to fascinate her, as does the chance to actually articulate her ideas out loud. We infer her father was perhaps rather old-fashioned about women’s place in society. While Jessica’s rebellion is physical flight, Portia’s rebellion is the outpouring of words with a metacritical track as she tries to wrench herself back to a semblance of proper behaviour. I’m guessing that this is what Geraldine James’s coltish performance was supposed to achieve, though it failed horribly. Here, it works perfectly.
Ferran also pulls off something that I think neither James nor Shaw achieved, in that her Portia is all of a piece. The Portia who does her best to stamp her authority on the game being played with her body as prize in the first half is also the Portia who storms into the court of Venice to save her husband’s best friend. This is a Portia who, delighting in the freedom to use words in the first half, understands the power of words in the second half. And yet, there is something horrible in the way this Portia glories in her new-found power, still too immature to understand the damage words can do. And yet, at the same time, as she watches Bassanio and Antonio, you can see her realising that other aspects of the world don’t necessarily work as she thought they would. It’s quite clear that Bassanio is happily bisexual; his partners seem less certain about sharing, and perhaps Portia is already realising that she will be supporting not one man but two.
It’s undoubtedly a very dark reading of Merchant of Venice: Findlay doesn’t even allow Antonio the luxury of knowing his ships have come home safely after all. Maybe in this version they never will, and maybe Antonio will lurk in Portia’s house – and she makes it very clear that Belmont is her house – grabbing a few moments of pleasure with Bassanio as the time allows, while Bassanio rushes around, spending too much, convinced that everyone in his world is happy, and Portia comes along behind, sorting things out and making ends meet. Bassanio’s great moments of passion come in trying to save his friend. Whether he will ever feel that for Portia, we have no way of knowing.
It’s probably not perfect – a little too much is assumed at times, a little too much not quite explored – but I’m glad to have an RSC production again that seems to have some teeth rather than relying on the set or comic business to get it through. The set this time was – very brassy, I think it would be fair to say. The stage was covered in highly reflective brass sheeting, giving a doubling effect I’m sure was meant to be significant but which felt a bit contrived. I’d love to see the RSC go for something more stripped down. I still have a fond memory of a very plain Hamlet done with a white stage and a few boxes as props. Or was that the ‘shirtsleeve’ Macbeth? Either way, more of that.
I’ve already mentioned Patsy Ferran and Makram J Khoury, but Nadia Albina (Nerissa) and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Bassanio) are well worth watching. Fortune-Lloyd is playing Cassio in the forthcoming Othello, and I’m curious to see what he will do with that. Tim Samuels’ gorgeously laconic Launcelot Gobbo was a delight and Ken Nwose’s turn as an over-excited Gratiano was also very amusing. In fact, I thought the whole cast worked well – most of them are new to the RSC but they looked confident as a group. Ferran is barely out of drama school, which makes her Portia all the more remarkable a performance.
Jamie Ballard’s Antonio, on the other hand, remains a mystery (though maybe another viewing will sort this out in my mind). Sadness is not the same as melancholia, though the latter might be a cover for the former. Ballard’s Antonio seemed to me to be a man at the end of his tether, rather than a merchant gravely trying to deal with his crises and help a friend, the way we’re trained to see him. Indeed, it seems to me now that Antonio and Shylock have more in common than I realised when I started watching, in that their professional standing is under threat but they might be said, in this production at least, to both be losing something they love very much. And this, of course, is why, in this production, Antonio’s ships do not come home.
So, yes, I’m satisfied with this Merchant of Venice, possibly even excited. It provides food for thought and lingers in the mind, which is pretty much what I want from a production. Having said that, it might not be as risky as it at first appears, when compared to a string of rather staid productions (I remain utterly unconvinced by Sher’s Falstaff in Henry IV part 1 though part 2 seemed to me to go a little deeper into the character – one could wish Polly Findlay had directed that), but at least Polly Findlay was willing to have a go.
We also saw the trailer for the forthcoming production of Othello, which I am uncharacteristically excited about. I did Othello for A level, and am still scarred by the experience of being dragged off to the cinema to see the awesomely appalling Laurence Olivier version. Even then we knew in our heart of hearts that a white man blacked up was wrong, and Olivier made it super wrong with a performance that chewed every bit of scenery in sight. I’ve also not forgotten the previous RSC production I saw, with Ben Kingsley as Othello and Niamh Cusack as Desdemona. I saw a lot of Kingsley on stage at that time and while he was generally good, the Othello? Not so much. I’m hoping this Othello gets it right.