So this was the week I ticked off something special from my bucket list. I have always wanted to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform live in Stratford-upon-Avon. Now admittedly they were in Stratford, while I was 312 miles away at the cinema in Hamilton, but in my comfy seat in front of the giant screen, I reckon I had a better view than anyone in the theatre.
The Merchant of Venice was my first introduction to Shakespeare. Or rather the first Shakespeare I remember reading (because surely we would have been introduced to something more entertaining, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) Anyway, at 14, I hated it, and haven’t given it a thought in the 4 decades since. Nor do I willingly read Will’s plays, having long since decided that they were written to be seen, not read.
At 50-something, when I finally revisited The Merchant of Venice, I was staggered (no exaggeration) at the validity of its themes for our modern world: Intolerance, hatred of minorities, anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy. No further detail here because I will soon wade into murky political and religious waters and this blog is not the place for that. The relevance of those themes made clearer by the decision to stage the play in contemporary costume on a stage made of brass, which reflected the audience back to themselves. This could be you, the underlying insinuation, however uncomfortable that may be.
No-one is perfect and that is particularly true of the characters in the play. My sympathies swayed back and forth as seemingly honourable characters became stained. Antonio, who wagers all for his friend, Bassanio (actually lover, no ambiguity about that in this production), lost my support when he spat (literally, no ambiguity about that either!) in Shylock’s face. That was his most “courageous” action, for the rest of the play he was a love-sick wimp! Portia, clever, witty Portia, frustrated me with her inability to see through gold-digger, Bassanio, and everyone, but everyone lost any respect I may have had for them for the sheer vindictiveness of the judgment against Shylock. Talk about kicking a man when he is down.
Shylock was not the Fagin-like character calling for his pound of flesh of my memory. Makram J Khoury, a Palestinian-Israeli whose lines sometimes reflected personal experience, portrayed Shylock in a most humane and fragile manner. Yet he seemed too insistent when it was time to take his knife to Antonio. The strength of the play, though, is to make that lust for revenge entirely understandable. But on this stage it felt out of character. Nevertheless, Shylock, the most honourable of them all, stole the show.
And yet, I can’t say why but I’m not entirely satisfied. Why would Jessica be in such a rush to betray her father as she did? There were no explanations of this on stage. (Have some scenes been skipped?) I have no recollection of Laucelot Gobbo impregnating Portia’s maid. (Have some scenes been added?) Shouldn’t Shylock be as morally ambivalent as the Venetians? Am I, despite my insistence that I won’t do it, going to have to re-read the play after all? Or will the Shakespearian afficionados among you point me in the direction of the definitive Merchant on DVD? Please.