April 18, 2000: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

National Theatre, Olivier. Directed by Trevor Nunn

A brilliant, moving mounting of the play that confronts the issue of anti-Semitism head on. Henry Goodman as Shylock is very “Jewish” — Orthodox garb, thick accent; what little scope he has left to be “friendly” with Antonio is destroyed by his daughter Jessica’s absconding with his wealth. The “merry jest” of the bond is just the sort of potentially deadly, aggressive merriness that is characteristic of Shylock, who both loves this daughter and abuses her physically. He is capable of putting his arms around her, of kissing her, of holding the picture of his dead wife Leah and comparing it to the face of his daughter — and of slapping her twice across the face when admonishing her to lock up his house against intruders. He is compulsive, paranoid — an utterly divided man, made so by the incessant bad treatment at the hands of the Christians. Jessica herself in this production is the pivotal character. When Shylock slaps her, we see her whole history with this father written on her face: as if to say, “This is what he always does to me.” She can no longer tolerate it, and she abandons him for marriage with the Christian. But she cannot divest herself of her ethnicity, of her Hebrew heritage. It is a moving moment when Shylock and Jessica sing a treasured Hebrew song together; we see her sing such a song much later, at Belmont. And there, although she has exchanged her drab, unattractive house dress for a shimmering, copper -colored sleeveless gown, she carries a deep freight of guilt over what she has done, though much in love with her husband and capable of the banter with him in the moonlight that Shakespeare invents for this couple in Act V. She is her father’s daughter.

The complexity, the self-dividedness of these two characters sets a tone for the entire play. The period is Italy in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, an Italy ripe for fascism. Café society is big, and important, and decadent. Belmont is more of a high-class extension of Venice than the other world it is generally taken to be in other productions. Cocktails are poured, records are played on a Victrola, Portia is dressed in a shimmering, sophisticated dinner gown, and the appointments are early futuristic. An unfinished Klimt, resplendent in gold leaf, depicts women as very expensive objects of desire. Persecutors are extremely rich, extremely dense and stupid men — until Bassanio appears and changes it all. The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is played openly but not excessively as homoerotic, but mainly on Antonio’s part. We know why he is so sad. He keeps his feelings fairly well hidden from Solanio, Solario, Gratiano, and the rest, but not from us. As played by David Bamber, there is a gravity, a pained wistfulness about the character that reads very clearly and contrastingly in this superficial, pleasure-seeking, and probably doomed society. Bamber has a deliberate, flawlessly articulate manner of delivery that is just right for the character who finds it difficult to acquiesce to the hard fate that his love for Bassanio has brought upon him. The loss of all his argosies is almost as nothing compared to his loss of the younger man whom he adores and impulsively kisses on the eve of Bassanio’s exposition to Colchis — sorry, Belmont — in search of the golden fleece.

Over against this glittering, glitzy atmosphere is the unhappy Portia, whose opening line echoes the melancholy tone of Antonio’s first speech: “Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this world.” She is wearied by the heavy terms of her father’s will, clearly an old eccentric’s attempt to ward off the superficial treasure-trove seekers who might otherwise win her hand. Bassanio is her one chance at redemption, and happiness. Bassanio’s opening speech as he deliberates over the three caskets says it all: “The world is still deceived with ornament.” Ornament is the theme of the decor of this play, ornate to a fault even in its Bauhaus cleanliness of line. Italian suits worn in this production are at once up-to-the-minute fashionable and the material equivalent of all that glisters. They fit their wearers a bit too tightly, as if high living and expensive dinners make them a little too fat for the slim-cut line. Bassanio too wears such a suit, but he doffs the jacket before making his fateful decision. Derbhle Crotty’s Portia almost gives the game away, she wants him so badly. It is not a small irony that Bassanio sees through her father’s roots and chooses the lead casket, when everything in the society militates against such a choice.

The metaphor of incipient Fascist Italy is very specific and is materialized in a fully articulated way, and still it proves to be utterly transparent in the hands of Trevor Nunn. The direction is brilliant: it offers a distinct, bold, and assertive reading of the play while at the same time allowing the virtues of the text to shine through and the brilliance of the writing to be clearly conveyed, again and again. I have seldom seen this play (or any other, for that matter) so well rendered from scene to scene. The virtue of this production is that we are helped to see the play freshly. The pivotal scene, in which, in a continuous action, Bassanio makes the right choice and then receives news that his friend Antonio has fallen on difficult times is the crucial one for the structure of the play, drawing the separate realms of Belmont and Venice inexorably together as dual elements of a single, complex world. Portia exchanges her habitual cocktail gown and luxuriant, curly black hair (Crotty is one of those beautiful Irish women with dark hair and near-alabaster complexion) for a boy’s sharp Italian suit, size 32, and a cropped, curly-haired top wig that, along with wire-rim glasses, make her the least attractive whiz-kid lawyer ever seen in twentieth-century productions of Merchant. The Act IV courtroom scene is wonderfully well realized. Shylock’s traditional business with the ominous pair of scales and the more ominous whetting of the blade of his knife on the sole of his shoe (there are prints of Edmund Kean as Shylock with both props) are accomplished down front and center on this broadly thrust stage (our seats in Row F were in the third row). Portia’s “Tarry a little, there is something else,” the line we all know and wait for, did not come! — not right away. Goodman’s Shylock advanced toward Antonio’s bared breast, his chrome-plated knife glinting in the stage light, came within a trice of plunging it into his heart, and then stopped; he could perhaps not, after all, bring himself to go through with this. His well-disguised humanity momentarily surfaces. He pauses, covers his face with the armor flung over his eyes; then corrects himself and once more prepares for the kill. Only then does Portia’s inspiration move her to stay his hand. It was almost a cinematic slow-motion sequence. Notably, by this time Shylock has been ostentatiously abandoned by his fellow Tubal; Shylock has never been more alone than now. His own predilection for the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit, for justice at the expense of mercy, proves his own undoing. Utterly vanquished, he leaves the courtroom, promising in an almost matter-of-fact voice to sign whatever document is presented to him. It is a ghastly, messy business that causes considerable elation on the part of the Christian hangers-on but achieves no real happiness. The courtroom clears, leaving Portia and Nerissa alone; they are clearly wasted, and appalled by what has happened.

But the play is not over. Somehow Nunn rescues the tone from unremitting sobriety; and yet the humor of the last act is a bit forced, and more than a little ironic. It is a naughty world, as Portia observes; in it, good deeds shine only briefly, as single candles. The business with the rings is given its due — it is always a crowd-pleaser, watching Portia and Nerissa reveal to an astonished Bassanio and Gratiano that they were themselves the agents of Antonio’s rescue. But Antonio’s attempted embrace of Bassanio is rebuffed with almost stony resoluteness (“Not here, Antonio; not now, not any longer, in fact,” he seems to be saying). And the last character we see is Jessica, who has been quite unable to shake off the self-accusatory bad feeling for what she has done to her father; it is almost as if she feels personally liable for what happened to him in Venice, and the news that he has been forced to sign over half of all he dies possessed of to the man who stole his daughter from him seems likely to turn the whole business sour for her. The dawn is coming, at the end of the play, but it is unlikely to cheer things up.

I have never seen a better, more convincing production of The Merchant of Venice than this, and have seldom seen Shakespeare better served. This is what good theatre is all about: stunningly good performances of a play newly discovered to be a brilliant piece of writing, by a director who sees very clearly into the depths that a century of fascism and inhumanity have taught us to find there.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book