Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Bell Shakespeare Company's production of The Merchant - review

A party of members recently attended a performance of Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of The Merchant of Venice  --  2017. According to the blurb, ‘this masterfully envisioned production tackles the biases and preconceived notions of one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays.

Our fearless leader, Frances, writes about the experience.

There was much to admire in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant of Venice.  We saw an engaging performance, full of energy and with a well-judged balance between the darker scenes and the comedy.  The antics of the young men, Portia’s and Nerissa’s irreverent treatment of the unsuccessful suitors, and specially the clowning of Launcelot Gobbo were entertaining.

Jessica Tovey as Portia
From the start a strong emphasis on “Them and Us” made clear the divide between Jews and Gentiles, and the thoughtless arrogance of the Christians’ language was consistently reinforced by gesture, attitude and facial expression.  (Interestingly this assumption of superiority was applied not only to the Jews: it was a clever detail to have the Prince of Morocco overhear Portia’s careless and too hasty line: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”)

Mitchell Butel as Shylock
The Christians, with the exception of course of a rather pallid Antonio, were a rowdy bunch; even Portia and Nerissa spoke with a vehemence which made me wonder at her submission to the terms of her father’s will without challenging it.  In contrast, Shylock was a sober and dignified figure  -  a serious man of business, quietly conducting his affairs and avoiding unnecessary confrontations.

His grief and shock at Jessica’s elopement were movingly conveyed and we could see clearly the precise moment when quite suddenly Shylock remembered the 'bond'.  Until then evidently he had not given it serious thought, but now the accumulated pains and insults had brought him to a turning point.  He was on a course which everyone in the audience could understand and probably sympathise with.

The court scene was made truly suspenseful, even for an audience familiar with the outcome.

I was interested to see Portia’s approach to the challenge of resolving the case.  I have always assumed that she received the necessary legal interpretation and instruction from her lawyer cousin, Dr. Bellario, who is referred to by the Duke as “learned”.  In the full script the Duke reads out Bellario’s letter to the court in which the doctor says: “I acquainted him (meaning Portia) with the cause in controversy…we turned over many books…he is furnished with my opinion.”

Much of the dialogue relating to Portia’s preparations for her trip to the court was cut, however, and we saw Portia and Nerissa change into men’s clothes there and then in Belmont (with no time to wonder how they happened to be available!) and thus the two arrived in court relying (apparently) on the inspiration of the moment.

So, in this production, Portia appeared not to have a fully-worked-out plan, and it followed that she spoke the Mercy speech as a sincere, deeply-felt effort to persuade Shylock, rather than the routinely dutiful appeal it can sometimes seem, before she pulls out the “big guns” of legalisms.

Portia’s spontaneity was well sustained; she was frantically re-reading the bond while Antonio’s supporters jeered at Shylock, and then there was the excited discovery, the relief at finding a way out, as she cried: “Why, this bond is forfeit!”  which led, nonetheless, into the prolonged teasing, allowing Shylock to believe that he had won, before the inevitable “Tarry a little…..” and the complete switch from despair to jubilation for the Christians, and from victory to total loss for Shylock.

Normally his enforced conversion to Christianity occurs, mercifully, off stage, but after the dreadful listing of all Shylock’s punishments
Gratiano’s exclamation: “In christening shalt thou have two godfathers” provoked the most shocking moment of the play.  Galvanised by these words the young men launched a brutal attack on Shylock, in which the physical violence vividly represented the spiritual violation, as he was stripped of his orthodox four-cornered tasselled vest, and finally his yarmulke was snatched from his head.  His vain attempts to cover his head while fending off blows were heartbreaking.

After such a scene it was difficult to enter fully into comic or romantic mood, and very sensibly the following episodes were quite abridged.  Antonio was assured of the safety of his vessels, Lorenzo was given his “deed of gift” and the muddle of the rings was briskly sorted out, but into this cheerful scene there was a horribly jarring note as someone carelessly dropped Shylock’s yarmulke on Jessica’s head.  This unscripted action allowed for an ending to the play very different in tone from the original.  This production chose to follow the example established so sensitively in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford, in which Jessica stole silently away, to gaze back from Belmont towards Venice and all that she had lost.

We really do not know if Lorenzo felt any guilt over Shylock’s fate, but he might well have been affected by Jessica’s responses to his boorish friends.  Though, to go so far as to tear up the deed of gift?  I am not convinced of that.

As the roistering Christians faded from sight all attention was on Lorenzo and Jessica in the single bright spot and the spirit established at the beginning of the play was again underlined: the intolerance and divisions between two societies.  I felt that it would have been sufficient to rely on the actors’ expressive posture here, to make the point, without the need of extra (non-Shakespearean) dialogue.

It was a strong and unsettling conclusion, from which the audience came away feeling uncomfortably ashamed and compromised.  If that was the performers’ intention, they succeeded admirably.  There was certainly much passionate discussion in the foyer afterwards.

The Merchant of Venice is frequently described as difficult  -  not in terms of the language or demands of performance as such, but with reference to interpretation.  There is also the difficulty of its classification as Comedy, but how would, or could, we re-categorise it, what with the wide differences between the three main plots, to say nothing of the sub-plots?

In the past the play was supposed to show that Shakespeare harboured anti-Semitic views, and now this latest version displayed almost the opposite: it might almost have been seen as anti-Christian.  And there perhaps is one of the major fascinations of the play  -  how the director chooses to weight the different themes and balance the competing moods and styles within the one performance.  Depending on his/her decisions, an audience will come away with a particular impression which might be quite at variance with another’s interpretation.

Maybe this gives us another good reason to keep attending new productions!