What: The Merchant of Venice
Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 21st May 2015
A writer in the UK newspaper “The Telegraph” pointed out how far short of the production at the Globe in London, the current RSC version of “The Merchant of Venice” falls. It is indeed unusual for two parallel productions to be running like this. It is, if you will, a surfeit of Merchants.
I cover only the RSC’s productions so I do not have the benefit or disadvantage of comparison. I, therefore, can only point out how the RSC’s production fails on its own merits. The audience were enthusiastic. The cast were spirited but bad directorial and staging decisions doomed it from the start.
I knew that everything was not going to be quite right from the moment that I picked up the programme. I was informed by the cast list in the centre pages that the production would last for 2 hours and 10 minutes. How I thought do you ram the Merchant of Venice into 2 hours and 10 minutes? The answer of course is that you don’t. if you are Polly Findlay, you set about it with your directorial scissors and you butcher the script.
I love “The Merchant of Venice”. I have done ever since I was a teenager. My love for the play survived even seeing the RSC present it set in Las Vegas (https://twilightdawning.com/2011/05/28/all-at-sea/) with an Elvis impersonator and a disinterested Patrick Stewart struggling with his voice and everything else in the pre-Gregory Doran era. And it will survive this — but I don’t have to be happy with it.
I love the drama of the court scene and the caskets. I love the questions it asks about religious hatred (it is so far from being anti-semitic, it is untrue). I also love the comedy but tonight the natural centre of that has been surgically removed.
The scenes between Launcelot Gobbo and his father, Old Gobbo, are wonderful but in this production they are completely absent – and so is Old Gobbo. Many of Launcelot’s other scenes are played out in the midst of the audience which means they are barely visible to many who have paid good money for their tickets.
Others scenes are rushed or absent. This means that the levity must be found elsewhere. It is centred in on a very modern, black, wideboy, Gratiano, played by Ken Nwosu, who is good but not quite believable. Cartoonish.
When I was school (14 years and all), the very first thing that my English Literature teacher did, was to use a now very politically incorrect term to describe Antonio and his supposed designs upon Bassanio. The script is, of course, not nearly so clear about that and so there are hints that can be considered by the director and producer and decisions that must be made. But whatever decisions are made they are still only hints – colourings, if you will.
There is nothing so delicately handled about that in this production and the suggested and hinted becomes a huge part of the story that swamps a lot of what is happening here. Now, there is nothing particularly radical about this any more. We live in a very different Western world than we did in the 1970s.
And frankly, this was clumsily handled. So we have a deeply homoerotic kissing scene between Antonio and Bassanio immediately prior to Bassanio declaring his intention to travel to Belmont to seek out and marry Portia. This might have worked at some other point in the performance (although I have to admit I’m not sure where) but surely not here.
The next major kissing scene between the two is in the court as Antonio awaits sentencing. However we decide to depict Bassanio and Antonio’s sexuality, this is an unlikely scene in the courts of Shakespeare’s day or in our modern courts whether it be between a man and a woman or two men.
The last time I saw Jamie Ballard with the RSC was in Measure for Measure (https://twilightdawning.com/2011/12/31/end-of-year-report-not-measuring-up/) which was a peculiarly constipated, uptight and frankly not very interesting production. Tonight is just the opposite. His Antonio is a veritable ball of emotions. He is out on the stage weeping for thirty minutes before the performance proper begins and the melancholia which would seem to be necessary for the opening scene is replaced by deep distress and the intensity of grief grows unrelenting from there right up to the end when his relief at living through the trial is over-arched by the necessity of the directorial decisions to show that he cares more about losing Bassanio to marriage than he does at surviving the Jew’s venom.
The trial scene is, in itself, a problem. Patsy Ferran is frankly over-matched by the necessities of depicting and showing the wisdom and erudition required to deliver “the quality of mercy” speech, sounding merely nervous throughout. This is particularly a shame as she is charming and admirable in her role before she takes up male garb. The directorial decision to have her seated through most of this speech does not help her ability to dominate the space.
The court scene, generally, is ruined by the decision to have Bassanio bring to the court the money that Portia has given him to pay Antonio’s ransom but then lose a deluge of bank notes all over the stage. It is hard to play one of the great, tense scenes of Shakespeare whilst you are surrounded by fake Euros marked “specimen”. These are then later in the play swept by cast members holding brooms into the laps of the front row. Bizarre!
Having said all this there are some good things about this production. Ms Ferran on the whole as I have mentioned but also several other members of the cast.
Chief amongst them is Makram J. Khoury as Shylock. Like Patrick Stewart before him, he plays the role straight and with a dignity but he seems far more connected and makes every word and gesture count. He is victim of injustice but also has a perverse version of justice. He helps us to understand that there are no saints in this script just evil facets of religion, whether we name it Christianity or Judaism.
Morocco is also played by Ken Nwosu who is far more convincing in this role than he is as Gratiano.
Another suitor, Arragon, is well-done by Brian Protheroe (some of the audience may remember him for his UK hit single “Pinball”). Here he is a pompous and detached English gentleman and it works well.
Bassanio is played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and in his scenes with Portia, he is well-characterised and thought out but the necessity of his heavy, heavy duplicity is more than this portrayal can bear. He seems so sincere when he is with Portia in Belmont but we know he is not and it is hard to think that Shakespeare thought of this character being so complex but having so little conscience. Bisexual, homosexual or heterosexual, this Bassanio cannot be likeable. He is a user of people – there is a sense of this in the script – but this quality is so heavy in him here that he shouldn’t be so likeable when he is alone with Portia.
The staging is bare and mirrored to little effect. The music is choral but seems to serve little purpose.
So we have a production of The Merchant of Venice with a dizzying array of ideas but few that seem to lock together convincingly. This reviewer went away from one of his favourite plays disappointed but also with some good things to appreciate. Approach with caution. This is one of the least satisfactory of the RSC’s productions since Mr Doran took over the helm.