THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 20th July, 2011
Shakespeare’s comedy has been forever altered by Hitler. The anti-Semitism of otherwise affable characters sits uneasy with us today. No one should claim dear old Will was a forerunner of political correctness but he infuses his Jew (a stock villain in the theatre of the time, all false beard and moneybags) with a streak of humanity that distinguishes him from the stereotype of his era. The famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, delivered in this production by Patrick Stewart (in a wig!) subtly reminds us of the past, making the endemic racism of the “Christians” more abhorrent. “If you poison ussssssss, do we not die?” The extra sibilance echoes the gas chambers and the play takes a darker turn. Shylock bewails the loss of money and valuables more than the loss of his daughter. (Oy vey, how the Elizabethans must have laughed!) He welcomes the news of his debtor’s misfortunes and relishes the chance to exact revenge (Boo! Hiss!) but you can’t help feeling his desire for vengeance is not wholly unjustified.
It’s not just Jews who get the bum’s rush. The Prince of Morocco, a massive Joe Frazier of a man, in boxing gloves and Lonsdale belt, fails to choose the correct casket in the lottery for Portia’s hand and also to charm the lady. On his arrival he is pelted with bananas; on his departure, valley girl and airhead heiress Portia is relieved, “Let all of his complexion choose me so!” It is not very Christian, but then this is a society Christian in name only. These people would be more suited to the worship of Mammon in their pursuit of financial gain. Their values are all skewed. Their regular meeting place, a casino, is dominated by the painted figure that calls to mind Christ on the cross but is a waitress with provocative pout, her arms extended in welcome and submission. Bassanio tries to win Portia (literally, win her) not just because he fancies her, but as a means to pay back the money he already owes his BFF, Antonio.
Antonio, the eponymous merchant, played like Christopher Walken without the menace and the tap-dancing, by Scott Handy, perhaps foolishly bankrolls the hedonism of his young favourite. He must know it’s a bad investment, financially and emotionally, with Bassanio’s sights set on a wealthy heiress. But Rupert Goold’s production adds a twist: we get the sense that Bassanio isn’t just milking his doting benefactor (so to speak). There is a genuine affection between the two men that perhaps goes beyond affection. This is Portia’s stark realisation in the final scene. Her husband will never love her as much as he loves his friend. The mind-fuck of the rings trick has backfired on this blonde-wigged princess. There is no fairytale happy ending. Portia tries to reclaim the fixed smile and showgirl posturing of her single days, when her role was defined: she was a prize to be won. She may have complained about being restricted by her father’s will but at least she knew where she was. The play ends with all the major players alienated, while at the centre, the pretty princess dances, demented on her one high-heel. Marriage has brought an end to happiness rather than the happy-ever-after we usually get. And in this instance, quite right too. These people needed a reality check. This is what you get when you marry someone from a reality show. Now repent at leisure.
Highlights for me were the trial scene, here conducted in a slaughterhouse with polythene in the doorway and meat-hooks hanging from the ceiling. Even if you know the outcome, this scene plays out with high tension – and haven’t courtroom dramas been a popular staple of theatre, film and television ever since? Here, Portia in disguise as a young male lawyer, comes into her own. She is able to function and dominate in a male sphere – an opportunity she is denied in her own life. The lottery of the caskets, played out as a television game show, affords us close-ups of the contestants (including a Prince of Aragon as a Mariachi) and the fixed grin and panicked eyes of Portia. She is to be won like a luxury car – a Porsche.
The clown figure in the piece is servant, Launcelot Gobbo, here portrayed as an Elvis impersonator – this is very funny but I can’t help wondering why Shylock would have employed him in the first place. He also sets the musical tone for the piece, ironically and effectively. The closing monologue from “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” fits the denouement perfectly.
The whole Las Vegas frame works very well as a stand-in for Renaissance Venice, with money everywhere, but I also loved the glitz and the music, the glamour that coats the darker aspects of this society. The place is the golden casket writ large, a gaudy exterior hiding the death’s head within. The production reminded me the play is a comedy, despite its downbeat resolution, and has deeper veins running through it. Our attitudes to materialism and to outsiders define us as a civilisation. All that glisters IS Goold, you might say.