The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Portia top, Shylock, bottom left, Antonio bottom right
Directed by Polly Findlay
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Friday 26th June 2015 19.15
This was the third Merchant of Venice we have seen in six months, though it was the first one we had booked, due to the length of time the RSC has for advance ticket sales. You wonder whether the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company deliberately compete. They seem to cover the same plays within a year of each other, sometimes even in the same season. You could have seen the Globe and RSC Merchants on successive days at one point. It’s fine for me, as I find seeing two very different productions of the same play enlightening. In the last few years, I have found seeing a great production leaves me wanting to see another just to enjoy how differently any Shakespeare play can be done. But you’d think they’d sit down and compare their plans sometimes.
This one had a mountain to climb. The Almeida’s revived Rupert Goold Las Vegas Merchant of Venice concept was a clear 5 star. Then there was the Globe in Elizabethan costume with Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, another clear five star. So we’ve had high concept, we’ve had traditional Venetian. Where were the RSC going to go?
Abstract. The stage rear and floor are copper coloured reflective panels. There is a silver ball swinging slowly on a pendulum. One might ask why. That’s it, plus two benches at the sides for the cast. The rear mirrors went very high indeed, and the kids chorus appeared above it, as did Jessica when induced to run away by Lorenzo.
Doors open at 7, giving Jamie Ballard as Antonio 15 minutes of standing alone centre stage looking anguished as the audience came in, Gradually others sat on the side benches. It was like a Warhol film, watching Jamie Ballard’s anguished looks. At one point he blew his nose which was a welcome touch of excitement in Warhol film terms. He had to repeat the anguished standing still for the last five minutes of the interval. The cast sitting watching throughout must have affected sales of The Guardian in central Stratford. The time-honoured Guardian crossword in the dressing room while off stage went out of the window. You do feel sorry for the likes of Brian Protheroe, only doing the Prince of Aragon. A five minute part, but a long time sitting on the bench watching. It reminds me of Drama department productions at university where you had to watch every second of every rehearsal, even though you merely had a one line intervention late in the second half. I suppose there you were watching a professional director at work so it was educational.
Antonio begins and ends it, and this is an Antonio-focussed production. You can measure productions on the Antonio-Bassanio relationship. There’s a scale from platonic friendship (Globe) with “love” interpreted as an Elizabethan version of “like” through to “dubious”- we’re not sure if it means more than ‘like’ or not – to definitely gay (Almeida) though we’re still not sure whether it’s all mainly in Antonio’s mind, to definite physical relationship (RSC) with Bassanio clearly bisexual. This was full on passionate male to male kisses, used right at the start, and then in the court scene as the sudden hinge for Portia to up her passion several notches, then turn and vent it all on Shylock.
Interesting casting. Makram J. Khoury, a celebrated actor from Israel was Shylock … a Palestinian Christian Arab. It worked for me. He looked Israeli rather than a Western Jew, and he has gravitas of his years. He had to take a few full on spitting into the face, one very close to our seats, and we literally shuddered in shock. He had a lot of lines cut, and his accent was Israeli rather than the stage London Jewish verging on Fagin that I feel best avoided. He gave a rounded character and genuinely evoked sympathy. I’m not sure we got the full anguish of Jessica ditching the ring he got from Leah, his wife, when they were courting. It’s an important line … it’s not all about money. Overall, I liked his interpretation.
Jamie Ballard’s Antonio brought us back to the fact that Antonio is the title character, the actual Merchant of Venice. I haven’t seen an Antonio like it. Twitching, anguished, sweating, terrified in he court scene, seething and trembling with unrequited love for Bassanio.
Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is another major role, handsome, bigger than Antonio. I very much enjoyed the first Antonio – Shylock confrontation, where Antonio initially borrows the 3000 ducats. Bassanio is in paroxysms of anguish trying to calm Antonio and prevent a row which would screw up the deal. He’s paired with a great Jack-the-Lad Gratiano by Ken Nwoso … who in a rare bit of doubling for this production has to do the Prince of Morocco as well … he changes costume onstage. The potential Bassanio – Gratiano lads double act came out well.
L to R: Nerissa, Portia, Prince of Morocco, Maid
After a hilarious Mexican Prince of Aragon at the Almeida, and then Christopher Logan’s superbly camp Spaniard at the Globe, Brian Protheroe had to find a different way in, and did Aragon as a jolly decent English chap, a tad arrogant of course, but frightfully well brought up. Both princes were very subdued in comparison to the Almeida and Globe, where both went for flat out comedy, wildly so at the Almeida. The caskets were lowered from the roof by the Maid pulling ropes.
The Prince of Aragon chooses
The programme and fliers feature Portia first – only Portia on the fliers. She comes at the top on the programme cover with Antonio and Shylock side by side below. That’s a fair assessment of the production. Patsy Ferran’s Portia was again, very different. She is one of 2014-2015’s tips for a great future. She has an extremely mobile face, almost to the point of silent film acting. She has that major transition from gauche and girly in the first half to the brilliant but vicious advocate. She and Nerissa were a strong pairing too. There’s lovely work with her just watching the unsuitable suitors, then willing Bassanio to choose right. The reactive acting as he realizes that Bassanio and Antonio are more than pals is notable. It comes out strongly at the end of the first half where she reads Antonio’s letter pleading help and stresses “love” with appalled shock. The gender roles are the centre of this production. I’d assume that as in Classical Greece, young men were often introduced to sex by older men in Elizabethan England, for much the same reasons, unavailability of women, fear of pregnancy, dire diseases from prostitutes etc. Portia would have known this, but also known it was a passing phase for most. Antonio is older, unmarried. It’s not a phase for him. He is homosexual. Full stop. It sets her wondering about Bassanio’s motivations.
The Trial: L to R: Bassanio (standing), Antonio (seated) Portia
Portia has been made to squirm by men, starting with her father’s will and the caskets designed to choose her husband for her. She has absolutely no choice as to her life. Bassanio is the best-looking, and neither foreign nor old, so the best bet. The question we always ask in productions is ‘Had Portia worked out her trial strategy in advance, or is it spur of the moment improvisation?’ We both think she had it worked out, which is why she goes to the trial. We felt, refreshingly, that was the case here. Men had sat in judgement of her. Men had made her squirm with those caskets. Bassanio was not what she thought. She didn’t like nor trust Antonio … this Portia was going to extract HER pound of flesh by making all of them squirm in the trial (and squirm they did throughout) before she decided to let them off the hook and resolve it, and when she resolves it, her spleen is vented on who? The outsider. The Jew. And also a visible father figure. Her father had set up the caskets. Portia had taken Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, under her protection. We had thought Shylock had lost so many lines, but here he served as scapegoat and victim for her rage. And she really goes for him. Strategy pre-planned. Degree of anger inspired by the Antonio- Bassanio snog. We both liked that. Portia might have mentioned the quality of mercy, but there’s no mercy here for anyone. When she first enters the trial scene, she says ‘Which is the merchant and which is the Jew?’ which got a good laugh, but she is in no doubt. She is defining the terms in a legal sense.
Lancelot Gobbo … this character was the reason I first loved this play on a school trip to the Old Vic. Lancelot had clown make up and sat three seats from us in Row B, and delivered his first speech from there. The row felt compelled to nod, smile and react. Great action throughout, tossing letters into the audience, tossing a banana skin, scooping up and pocketing some of the huge piles of ducats (that get thrown onto the set in the court scene) while they’re being swept up before the ring scene. He also had to lay out about thirty candles on the stage, two at a time, which he did all the way through the last Jessica / Lorenzo scene and the rings argument. The candles looked wonderful reflecting in the mirrored surfaces for the final minute or two, but what a lot of effort! Leave the lit candles to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe. I’d also note that having Lancelot speak from a premium seat costs the RSC £50 in lost revenue every performance.
None of the women are compliant. A tiny point is when the maid, heavily pregnant under the green crimplene, is told to hurry with the message to Padua. She waddles off deliberately slowly and has to be pushed along by Portia. A mildly perverse casting decision was doubling Rina Mahoney as Portia’s maid and the Duke of Venice. There is an obsession with gender switch in parts in most productions, and she did the duke well, so much so that I never realized it was the same actor until afterwards. There was a reason for it too. In the court scene, the three who are judging … Portia, Nerissa, the Duke … are all female. The judged are all male. Another aspect of Portia and the male-female relationships.
The Duke and Antonio at the start of the trial scene
BUT having a woman in trousers playing the duke inevitably undercuts the fact that Portia and Nerissa are dressed as men. The Duke was addressed as “My Lady, so in fact a duchess, but ‘duke’ it says in the programme. However, you have Brian Protheroe, a fine and natural duke if ever I saw one, sitting on the sidelines, having only done the Prince of Aragon cameo. It was hitting gender switch into us with a hammer.
What I love about the play is the gamut of emotions it runs through. It has very funny scenes, romance, clowning, then we feel sympathy for Shylock, which has to turn as he tries to exact revenge, the major dramatic tension of the court scenes, then we have the light comedy of the rings ending. Having seen two others this year, this one reflected on different parts, stressed different things. It was the least “funny” of the three.
Criticism? The costumes. They’re “odd modern.” One review said 60s, but even though I was there, I can remember the 60s, and no. It was the “ugly costume” set beloved of modern designers. Seen it in Lear, Hamlet, Measure for Measure. The Pete Postelthwaite King Lear was the worst example … until now. Nasty fabrics. There’s a lot of nylon. It’s unflattering to actors.The women get harsh colour contrasts … thin bright red nylon for Portia, bright blue top for Nerissa, lime green crimplene for the maid, shapeless black for Jessica. Then Portia has a white frock with multi-coloured splodges. There are odd coat like things and unusual jacket lengths for the men. A few have lurid trainers. Gratiano has a nylon bright orange kind of housecoat over his costume. Shylock has a dull blue windcheater then a dull blue cardie. Basically, it’s just really ugly costume set outside any particular decade. I don’t know why it appeals to designers at all. It seems to mark tragedies too. We both think it loses an important dimension of the theatre. Everyone changed into black for the trial scene and that looked better, with Portia in dusty black suit, black shirt and black tie. Another contrast was that the men’s hair was well-groomed and coiffeured and cut. The women’s hair just looked “as is.” Nowhere near the same attention. The women’s ugly clothes were uglier than the mens’. Was it part of the focus on a gay Antonio and Bassanio? For costume, the Almeida and The Globe both absolutely trounced the RSC.
The overall acting style had a LOT of background reaction and gesturing and signalling and arm waving. The facial reactions got close to gurning at times. A lot added necessary humour and interest though at times it was a gesture-fest.
Portia and Bassani
It lacked love. One thing that didn’t happen was any real sense of love between men and women. Gratiano stayed laddish and comic with Nerissa. Bassanio was after the money with Portia. Jessica and Lorenzo gave the same impression. It meant that we lost the natural “Ah!” resolution of the three re-united lovers which worked so well at The Globe, and usually does. What we got was Antonio starting to walk off, pausing, then coming back to sit on the bench. Alone.
The music was highly praised, and the kids as choristers perched above the copper mirrored background to the set, faces peeping over sounded superb … but their interventions were very short. I would have liked more. Knowing the hassle of guardians and time rules with kids for a long run it’s hard to justify it. Three professional adults would have been a lot less work.
Ratings … the Evening Standard got all the quotes on the fliers for really loving it. The Telegraph thought three stars., and Michael Billington in The Guardian damned it with two stars. We thought it much better than that, at least a four, very close to five. Our attention was rapt throughout. Really ugly costume and the dull abstract set – an inexplicable pendulum is just annoying … are factors in taking it below a five.
With three excellent Merchants in six months, all were very different from each other, casting light on varied aspects of the intrinsic play. The Almeida was the most innovative, and overall my favourite. The Globe had the best Shylock, and was a fabulous production, placing this one third, but only by a little way. The RSC had the best Antonio. This one probably provoked the most discussion of the three afterwards too. The others had us discussing how well they did the play. This one had us discussing what Shakespeare was getting at in the play and the many layers, so provoked the most interesting reflections. That’s a plus. Shylock was almost incidental, a catalyst and scapegoat for the male-female relationships to play out.
This production is being played in repertory with Othello (LINKED) with many of the same cast.
THE OTHER 2015 MERCHANT OF VENICE ON THIS BLOG:
- The Merchant of Venice – Almeida
- The Merchant of Venice – Globe, 2015,Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
- For Jamie Ballard, see also
- Measure for Measure, RSC 2012 (Angelo)
The Merchant of Venice, The RSC, 2015 (Antonio)
King John, Rose, Kingston (King John)
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios, 2013 (MacDuff)
The White Devil, Wanamaker Playhouse 2017 (Bracciano)