And so, after last week’s Othello it was off to Venice again for the final play in the Royal Shakespeare Company/BBC’s “Culture In Quarantine” season. The Merchant Of Venice has always seemed to me an early “problem play” of Shakespeare’s largely because I find it fragmented and disjointed. To me there are just too many bits of plot which directors have to navigate in order to make sense of it as a unified piece; should the play keep a broad focus or home in on Shylock, or Portia or on the group of wheeler dealers with their overt displays of capitalism?
Polly Findlay’s 2015 production opts for the latter and more specifically focuses on Antonio – the titular merchant. The play both starts and ends with him alone on stage visibly pining for Bassanio and seemingly incapable of making rational decisions when it comes to dealing with his own inner turmoil. Though often hinted at, this version of the play makes clear the gay relationship the two men have and how this affects both their personal and public life. Nothing wrong with that, except it does rather put Portia and, particularly Shylock, on the back burner. All the time I kept feeling these figures were actually in a different play and almost a spin off to the central drama.
I don’t think it helped that Makram J Khory’s portrayal of Shylock, particularly, seemed underpowered and with no real sense of his motivation other than for revenge at being repeatedly spat on. Powerful the first time (it drew a gasp from the audience) it became repetitive and less effective each time. In the trial scene Khory just seemed to give up altogether – surely, we should see Shylock as cornered and fighting all the time for his self-respect. Possibly the unresolved tangle that his prop scales got into (the effort to sort them out became fascinating in itself) threw him off his stride. Patsy Ferran made a good attempt at Portia but, again, something left me feeling unsatisfied. I think it was the rapidity with which many of the lines were delivered making Portia seem as if always wanted to be somewhere else. Overemphatic gestures were also distracting. When Ferran slowed and took her time (as she did in the “Quality of mercy” speech) and ditched the pointing and stabbing, things improved immeasurably. Her relationship with Nerissa (Nadia Albina) was well played but that with Bassanio lacked chemistry. Her sudden realisation that her new husband and Antonio were/had been an item didn’t seem to change anything in the subsequent scenes. I also wasn’t particularly convinced by the relationship between Lorenzo (James Corrigan) and Jessica (Scarlett Brookes) and that between the latter and Shylock was totally non-existent. Communication here seemed to consist solely of loud exchanges between the two at the top and bottom of a high wall. Where was the necessary close bond between father and daughter? Without this, it makes no sense of Shylock’s subsequent devastation and his need for revenge when Jessica elopes….which takes me back to the start of this paragraph.
The relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, however, is convincingly done. Jacob Fortune- Lloyd as the former comes across as a bit of a chancer at first but by the court scene, we are entirely convinced by his attempts to divert Shylock’s persecution in his own direction. Jamie Ballard’s Antonio is, from the off, smitten by Bassanio and makes wrong headed decisions as a result. I found his characterisation particularly moving in the courtroom scene. Often portrayed as a noble yet stoical victim this Antonio wept, whimpered and was clearly terrified. In that one moment the production really came alive and justified its existence.
Of the other roles, I particularly enjoyed Brian Protheroe’s cameo as an aging playboy Prince of Aragon – what a pity he only appears in the one scene. The various young merchants, mostly played as swaggering city boy types, did not have enough differentiation in their characters to make them successful entities. And is there a more annoying and almost wholly superfluous clown in the whole of Shakespeare than Launcelot Gobbo? Tim Samuels did what he could with the role but was on a hiding to nothing – I was thankful that the deeply unfunny interplay with Old Gobbo had been ditched.
I think this was probably the least successful production of the RSC’s six on iPlayer (though I’d lay at least part of that at Shakespeare’s door). Coming in at a shade over two hours, at least it did not outstay its welcome; even so the whole business with Portia’s caskets remains uninspiring and winching them in from the flies did not bolster their interest much. The heavy pendulum which throughout swung back and forth at the rear of the stage was another distraction, mostly along the lines of “why?” Indeed the whole set up was remarkably uninspiring. There was no attempt to differentiate between Venice and Belmont with all scenes being played out on a mirrored stage which allowed the audience to gaze at themselves when there was nothing much else happening. A rather heavy-handed way of saying “hey, you’re part of this too,” it signally failed to work on screen. I suppose the gilded reflection was trying to say something about the power of money, but as the production continued I just kept finding one line from the play repeatedly running through my head: “All that glisters is not gold”.
Production photos by Hugo Glendinning
The Merchant Of Venice is available via the BBC iPlayer for one month. Click here
It is part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine strand which features five other recent RSC productions. Click here
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