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April 10, 2008

Embarrassed by Shylock: The Merchant of Venice at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
directed by Tim Carroll
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 3rd April - 27th September 2008

A bare stage, modern dress; a big, temporary warehouse of a theatre, full to the brim. A young cast, without stars. One would like to say that it all went well, but judgement must be a deal more complicated than that.

Stratford has now finally rid itself of proscenium arch theatre. The main theatre will reopen in 2010 as a theatre "in the round", like the much-loved Swan. The Courtyard is also a giant, urban-industrial version of the Swan. My point is that this production left me wanting a bit of old-fashioned scene-changing. Good productions of Merchant create two contrasting atmospheres. There is Venice with its big money deals and racial tensions - masculine, modern and familiar. And there is Belmont - rural, ethereal, feminine. Genius loci can be achieved in the round with a little imagination, as was demonstrated by recent productions of the histories. But here the imagination runs only to weirdly abstract mauve objects which suggested nothing to me.

The (even) more serious problem of the production is Shylock.

I remember back in the 1980s a prominent Jewish intellectual coming up to our neck of the woods when the RSC was running Merchant alongside The Jew of Malta because, he said, he so much liked to see his more odious relatives caricatured. He would be very disappointed with Angus Wright's interpretation of Shylock which lacks any of the traditional Jewishness of speech or body movement (though he does have a beard).

Wright's Shylock reminded me of the sort of solemn North London student who confides that he very much wants to get a first and that he is rather contemptuous of his hedonistic contemporaries. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" is a point made, rather scornfully, in a seminar, not with the anger of one whose beard has been covered in spittle in the market place.

I can see reasons, both political and theatrical, for getting away from the old caricatures. The trouble is, it doesn't work. Shylock should be both sympathetic and repugnant; he is a nasty piece of work, but for good reasons; we should fear his anger, but feel guilty about its causes. Arousing no emotion - unless you count embarrassment - is no substitute for arousing contradictory emotions.

I am inclined to think that Wright - or his director - has committed the worst of theatrical fallacies by confusing freshness with originality. The latter is easy enough - to do badly. I once saw an actor play Mark Antony as a very bad public speaker; the performance is remembered, but the actor is forgotten.

I say this in risk of being accused of the standard middle-aged man's hormonal response to well-spoken young actresses, but Georgina Rich's Portia is the best thing in the production. She is poised, attractive and wistful and does the male body language well. The best scene in the production is the last one when the young folks return to Belmont and we are able to enjoy Shakespeare's crude, but effective tactic of combining dramatic irony with gender-bending. Though the performance actually ends, as it begins, with some weird and unnecessary country dancing.

This summer's repertoire in Stratford consists of Merchant, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The first two are problem plays in the twenty-first century because of our sensitivities about race and gender. Ironically, Dream used to be considered unstageable - for different reasons, for example, by Pepys and Hazlitt. But we don't have a problem with fairies these days.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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I don't usually read reviews because I like to make up my own mind. So I went to see this production, having eagerly looked forward to it for some months. I was very disappointed to see a bunch of men in shabby suits like second hand car salesmen (dressed down on Friday), with a stage which was virtually nothing more than an empty space. Venice, Belmont? No, it all happens in an empty warehouse! Is that because they want to keep the cost down? Well, the tickets weren't cheap. No, I suspect it was motivated by some kind of liberal lefty PC intellectualism. The star character of the play seemed entirely neutral about his work. He showed no passion or conviction. He was just reading the script - in a hurry. When he came to do that part about "If you prick us do we not bleed ...", the performance was so colourless, that I believe it would have gone unnoticed to anyone who didn't already know the play.
I was so outraged by the whole thing that I began to wonder if there was anything wrong with me, may be I was too stupid to understand the higher intellect of the diretor, may be it was too abstract for me, which is why I began to search for on-line reviews. It seems I was not so wrong about the production.

Posted by: Bruce Hakami at April 13, 2008 08:08 PM
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