This is the third HD film of a production of the RSC Shakespeare company that I’ve seen at the Folger Shakespeare library theater. Their Love’s Labor’s Lost was excellent as one of the first genuine attempts I’ve seen to present the play’s content seriously, but when it came to the play within a play, their concept couldn’t take in the humor or irony; unexpectedly their Love’s Labor’s Won (a retitled Much Ado About Nothing) was a disappointment: I had watched a Future Learn which focused on this production and it lead me to think it must be marvelous: it was very good but its dark or pessimistic interpretation was unable to make sense of the play’s supposed happy ending. Still both productions persuaded me that at every opportunity where a film of a live production (HD screening or encore) existed within my reach, I should go.
I am now convinced the latest phase of the RSC company is as deeply rewarding as any phase that has gone before it. For the very first time in all the productions of The Merchant of Venice that I’ve seen, in this one directed by Polly Findlay, the character of Antonio and his relationship to Bassanio makes sense. As the play opens, Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is on stage in a deep depression: the cause emerges as his love for Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who loves Antonio in return but longs to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran), a wealthy beautiful Venetian — because Bassanio is capable of bisexuality, because he finds her attractive and compelling and to get her money. It is the deep betrayal of Antonio that this means that causes Antonio’s melancholy. Nonetheless, because he is an abject lonely man in his heart, he agrees to the bond with Shylock in order to supply Bassanio with the wherewithal to woo the rich lady of Belmont. The words of the last act which indicate intense quarreling as well as the poeticisms of heterosexual romance at the opening suddenly made ironic sense. At the close of the play Bassanio must go off to bed with his wife, and leave Antonio alone again.
The stage was a wall and floor made of golden metallic substance, all smooth and glittering. All the characters who are active in choosing their fate (servants or hangers-on like Gratiano imitate) are out for money every time. Lorenzo (James Corrigan) wants Jessica (Scarlett Brooks) for her body but were the money not here he’d not be seeking to elope with her. She has to tell him about (Shakespeare’s words are there) the jewels, the casket and money to come to excite him to act. It’s clear from words that she is regarded as inferior. The production added an enactment which made Jessica feel bad that she had deserted her father (Makram J. Khoury) and was the abject person subject to Lorenzo as we see them exit the stage.
The production put the anti-semitism of the text in your face. Makram J. Khoury looked like a caricature of a Jew, though what was brought out was that despite Shakespeare’s clear empathy for the man, Shakespeare’s presentation of the Christians as just as mean and amoral, greedy, hard as Shylock. This the first production I’ve seen that brought out how Shylock points out to the Duke were he to ask the Venetians to treat their slaves humanely they would laugh or just ignore him. Nonetheless, this Jewish man is a hate-filled figure; he says bitingly, bitterly of Antonio that Antonio is himself getting money by his trading and why should he the Jew not do likewise where he can, and says it seethingly. Shylock’s reaction to Antonio who openly despises and actually spits on his face (which the actor does twice!), is natural but this sort of human reaction is rarely shown so clearly. We see humanity as it is, the thing in itself on both sides. Still the Christians seem more forgiving: they have one another to comfort them. Shylock had only Jessica and she fled; Tubal (Gwilym Lloyd) is a confidant but there is little emotional relation between them felt and Tubal is not there for very long.
The scene where Antonio bares his chest to be cut up functions as a trope of torture. Shylock prepares to torture Antonio before our very eyes.
The production add an enactments (gesture as well as Shakespeare’s words) which insisted on Shylock’s hurt at the loss of this daughter and her betrayal of him (as well as the loss of the ducats and jewels), but the bare cruelty and greed of the man was undeniable. The play’s text exposes him when he turns to ask for his money when he can’t have his pound of flesh without blood. When it is required of him by Antonio that in return from keeping one-half of his money until he dies and it goes to Lorenzo, he become a Christian, he grovels. This is the play. In the 21st century the gov’t of Israel has acted according to Shakespeare’s conception of how an ostracized alienated person, a Jew, would act.
The money angle of the play is important. In Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell tells Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, the world is not run from war sites or by swords but from Antwerp and by money transactions of bankers. In his mesmerizing series of lectures for Future Learn on Shakespeare’s plays, Jonathan Bate included a long section on the function of interest (usury) in making the Renaissance happen and talked of money and usury and Venice in his comments on this play. Love & friendship and money are the focuses of this play.
I was not surprized to hear a number of audience members talking during the intermission as if in shock; and while the theater was packed as the film began, after the intermission, sufficient numbers of people had left to reconfigure the way people were seated so new people were sitting up front (where I was). Those who left couldn’t take it, didn’t like it? Not only was the Shylock too hard, but perhaps when Antonio and Bassanio kissed so passionately and made it clear they were the true lovers, audience members were also turned off. None of Shakespeare’s words were changed and I heard no one say that what was being shown was not in the play. I love when art is hard and candid in this way, shows you what you are or could be, shows what people hide because of socially acceptable pious norms. Were the production not equally hard on the Christians, I would castigate it, but it is as hard on them. I have not mentioned that Gobbo impregnates Portia’s servant (as Shakespeare’s words imply) but does not want to marry her – she has no money. The first two suitors, Morocco (Ken Nwosu) and Aragon (Brian Protheroe) are jackasses. The male cronies of Antonio and Bassanio unscrupulous roughs. Gratiano (Ken Nwosu again) is funny because he is so unguarded.
The RSC has turned The Merchant of Venice into the unsentimental tragedy it is, and demonstrated to me why 18th and 19th century critics and readers kept saying how real much real human nature Shakespeare’s plays enact. They came out on stage as a group but they did not (as is so common nowadays) break into a happy dance at the end. Even enactments of the tragedies sometimes end this way. I was glad they did not.
People seem to want to forget that Shakespeare’s plays are plays meant to be read. Reading plays have existed since there were written down plays and exist still. The text also offers profound meditative material on law, justice, mercy, pardon (forgiveness) and (just as important) learning to turn a blind eye on what’s in front of you in order to carry on. Patsy Ferran carries or pulls off this difficult content superbly well. The business of “the ring” at the end of the play shows Portia that Antonio is Bassanio’s preferred love. It inheres especially of course in her fully-emotive and eloquent treatment of the several phases of Portia’s appeal to Shylock (the famous speech about mercy). When he will not yield, she turns on him to show him how words may be interpreted against him so easily. Never depend on your bond, your contract. Who has the hegemonic powe is the person who wins out in public life — public life shapes the private. And as a Christian male (who hides his homosexuality from everyone but Bassanio) it’s Antonio who holds public trumps. The point of the first scene where Antonio refuses to say why he is sad is to show him hiding what he knows is the reason for his sadness from his male buddies. He does not win in private life, but then Shylock does not either. I’ve wondered before if the title refers to both Antonio and Shylock, making them parallel. Both outsiders.
Perhaps the production sought to disquiet and disturb complacencies beyond what is in Shakespeare’s text. The actress playing Nerissa, Portia’s servant, Rina Mahoney has had one of her arms amputated or it was lost in some dreadful accident above the elbow. She did not wear a prosthetic so that again and again the audience was confronted with the stub of an arm. Mahoney is small in comparison to Nwosu (Gratiano) and he swung her around in ways that suggested when out of sight of Portia, Nerissa would not be able to enact an imitation of Portia’s power. Samuels’ behavior as Gobbo put me in mind of Roy Kinnear as the bizarrely heartless theatrical Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play of A Man for all Seasons (as filmed in the Charleton Heston production).
There is a new style of acting or delivery of Shakespeare’s lines afoot in all 3 productions I’ve seen: at top speed which imitates psychological reality and yet each word or phrase super-clearly heard so as to try to reach 21st century audiences who may never have read any Shakespeare play; there are editions of Shakespeare’s plays for students where on one side is Shakespeare’s English and the other a modern paraphrase, as if this were a dual-language text. I find this style acceptable to working well — though it must be said the mode relies on artifice of delivery which takes away from in-depth psychological presences. The only actor performing in the old style somehow more naturalistic way (stylized but differently, in this case wittily) was Protheroe, an older man playing Aragon, the second suitor who chooses the silver casket. Protheroe spoke more slowly, and it was a sort of relief to have this less demanding kind of projection.
This is a courageous and intelligent production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, demonstrating again (as if we needed to be taught this) that William Shakespeare’s almost preternatural intelligence left us plays audiences and readers have not yet been able to come to terms with. The RSC is trying to lead the way.