RSC: The Merchant of Venice (2015)

November 18, 2016

51jd-sfgbl-_ac_us160_The Merchant of Venice really is quite a difficult play; in Shakespeare’s time it might have been an anti-semitic and Jew-baiting piece, but it really isn’t possible to play it that way in the post-Holocaust twenty-first century. This sets directors a challenge, but also seems to open up the play to more complex and interesting interpretations than Shakespeare might have dreamed of…

I saw the RSC performance that I’m writing about here, in 2015: it stunned me then, and was easily the best interpretation I’ve seen. So I bought the DVD (in fact, I must have enjoyed the performance so much that I accidentally bought the DVD twice) and came back to it the other evening. It’s quite a fast-paced production – sometimes Portia is rather too prone to gabble, but that’s a minor complaint, honestly. It’s a modern-dress performance, though the setting feels timeless, really.

A number of things stand out for me. The Venetians all come across as money-grubbing, fortune-seeking, shallow personalities. Bassanio is a gold-digger, who knows how to say the right things to the right people. Portia is young and frustrated by her father’s will, rather than the ageing woman fearing being left on the shelf as she has occasionally (and convincingly) been played. She clearly fancies Bassanio and gives him obvious hints about the right casket, which he convincingly feigns ignoring…

Shylock is played as someone who’s had enough of the racist taunting and seizes a proffered opportunity to get even: this is understandable and convincing. So far, so good, so obvious: what did the performance do for me that was different, and thought-provoking? Antonio, for starters: a young man, passionately in love with Bassanio – they have clearly been lovers – who is distraught that his lover – bisexual Bassanio – is about to quite that phase of his youth and move rather more seriously into heterosexual fortune-hunting, nevertheless helps him in his quest by signing up to the bond. His looks, gestures, facial expressions and tearfulness say it all: we feel for him. And then he is truly vile to Shylock. So when in the trial scene Shylock advances on him with his knife ready to take the forfeit, we are torn, but we feel his torment and anguish at the approaching doom. And there is a priceless moment as the disguised Portia witnesses the passionate farewell kiss between the two men and realises what their relationship was…

Watching the play again this time, I was struck by how much the play seemed to be about loneliness: Shylock after the trial, Antonio suffering in the happy world of Belmont as his lover abandons him, and – often overlooked – the sadness and loneliness of Jessica who has abandoned father, family and faith for Lorenzo and his Christian yahoo mates, who ignore her, because after all she is still really Jewish… even Lorenzo’s attitude is ambivalent at best. Belmont is not really the place of happy ever after that we might have thought it was; this is a superb version of the play, bringing out the best of both comic and tragic elements of Shakespeare’s creation.

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