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January 25, 2005

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice - Michael Radford

Posted by Richard D. North

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Directed by Michael Radford
certificate PG, 2004

Shakespeare can stand almost anything and come up smelling of roses. Richard II and Lear can be played by women (Fiona Shaw and Kathryn Hunter respectively), and hardly bat an eyelid. Romeo and Juliet can be the scions of feuding families in any period you like and ring true. RIII positively invites jackboots and tanks. But there are some things it is worth avoiding if you want to get the Bard across. One is mumbling. Another is slowing the pace down. A third is whispering. Shakespeare wrote in a manly age which had darkness about it, but that isn't to be mistaken for film noir gangster menace. This version of the Merchant has the mindset of Goodfellas and its only real value is that Al Pacino's Jew is a decently old-hat thespian import. We might have known of course: his Looking For Richard (1996) taught us how well and seriously the man has brushed up his Shakespeare. Pity he didn't direct himself this time.

Back to the mumbling. One blissful night in the West End, I heard Stephen Dillane make a very good fist of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. But he couldn't be heard. Not, at least, until an exasperated bloke somewhere in the back of the stalls bawled out, with ringing clarity:

"Oh, for God's sake, speak UP man".
Shattering pause and not for effect. Dillane did a few minutes of elocution lesson exaggeration before rewarding us with properly pitched stage acting (to which he continued to add his signature intelligence). Amongst modern young actors, Brannagh is a rare Saga audience's delight: machine gun delivery, syllables splattered against the back wall.

It's tempting to blame TV and movies for wrecking actors' ability to speak. So it's doubly infuriating when a film director in the Merchant's case Michael Radford - can't be bothered to turn up the microphones or shove them a bit closer to whatever is coming out of the actors' mouths. But then, Radford bills his movie as you see its title above, and describes himself as author of the screenplay. If he had deviated more from the original he might just deserve and risk the moniker, but all he does is edit out the boring bits, and not too badly. Gordon Bennett, the hubris.

Pacino gets all his stuff as right as the British thesps get theirs wrong. He makes all the moves, but doesn't overplay them. There's no self-pity in this Jew; no breast-beating; nothing dolorous. He's angry as a snake.

This film is understandably determined to show that the Jew has been badly-treated by Venetian society (we see as well as get told about the spitting Shylock endures), and that he is within his rights to want racial revenge. That's fair enough. But one somehow feels that Shakespeare could enjoy playing with the audience's dislike of Jews rather more than he condemns the Venetians. One can imagine him sharing anti-Semitic prejudice, knowing that it was hardly high-minded to do so, and was certainly interested to see how a Jew might respond if he got the chance to fight back. After all, Shylock is only horribly reasonable about his revenge. He tells Antonio that Jews like interest, but if you'd rather a penalty for non-payment, that's fine too. And if you want to preserve the right to hate Jews, that'll suit also: but don't expect to be cut any slack whilst claiming it. All could have been different but if these are Antonio's choices, let's get on with it.

Our good fortune is not to have to agonise about whether Shakespeare, his audience, the Venetians, or anyone else, is anti-Semitic. The play anatomises the consequences, not the morality, of bigotry.

Well beyond a meditation about prejudice (and the sudden side swipe of the apostasy of Shylock's daughter), this is really a treatise about laws, promises and choices and how they have unintended consequences. A father's will imposes a mad game of chance on his daughter; a pair of girls tie their men into knots with promises made in exchange for rings; a debtor blithely promises to repay a debt; a creditor insists he is bound by a promise of his own to exact the penalty his debtor's bond entitles him to. In the great trial denouement, the court is reminded that it has no power to be merciful, only to maintain the fabric of order. But luckily, a clever lawyer proves that its own very finicketty nature (the Jew can have his pound of flesh but no blood) is by mistake forgiving.

This is dark stuff, of course. But there is sometimes high-spirited comedy in it, and very often a spirited briskness of word and deed. And always, of course, the verse. Mr Radford chose instead to be moody, and I fear I repay in kind.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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