Despite being trimmed to just two hours, Abigail Graham’s production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ takes a surprisingly long time to get to the point.
Let’s fast forward to the jaw-dropping final scene, a brilliant, virtuosic piece of psychological horror in which the tables are turned on Adrian Schiller’s dignified, possibly slightly neurodivergent Jewish moneylender Shylock. Obliged by honour to claim a fatal ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio (Michael Gould), a Venetian merchant who has defaulted on a loan to him, Shylock instead finds the tables turned as the play’s Christian characters effectively gang up to mercilessly crush him. The scene is played virtually slo-mo, in moody half-light, with doomy percussion roiling in the background and the rest of the cast staring at Shylock with terrifyingly blank expressions while his daughter Jessica (Eleanor Wyld) sings a keening lament. It is a searingly visceral climax to the production, that picks out the antisemitism of Shakespeare’s characters with exquisite remorselessnes. Yes, every modern production of ‘Merchant’ has to square the fact that – taken at face value – it has a ‘happy ending’ that’s unpalatably antisemitic. But Graham goes way further than most, with the violence in Shylock’s undoing underscored by the director’s bold decision to simply hack out the final scene of the play, leaving it raw and bleeding as it ends in darkness and despair.
The director has a firm grasp on what she wants to do with Schiller’s impassive but vulnerable Shylock. Speeches normally delivered as snarling and covetous are here earnest and droning; he takes the approach to money-lending that he does because he takes money-lending extremely seriously, and can conceive of no other way of going about it. But the production suffers from a surplus of bold ideas for the other characters that leaves the whole noisy and clanging rather than everything working in harmony.
Sophie Melville is a brilliant actor, and her take on rich heiress Portia is fascinating. Given control of her late father’s fortune until such point as a suitor can solve a riddle left in his will, her Portia is boldly and unusually dislikeable, with the twitchy narcissism of a reality TV star combined with the barely concealed racism of, er, a reality TV star (she almost vomits when she recieves a Black suitor). There is the strong sense that her late father’s suffocating protectiveness has left her not quite right. When she finally steers Michael Marcus’s Bassanio to victory in the tacky quiz show designed to solve the riddle and assign her a husband, she looks scared and confused by him, her face a barely mobile rictus (to be fair, she’s right to be suspicious – Bassanio is shown to be in a relationship with Antonio, and only after Portia for her money).
But it’s impossible to square her weirdo dysfunction with the smooth, erudite turn she gives when disguised as a lawyer in the next scene. It’s just not coherent characterisation.
You can’t accuse Graham of not having put thought into these non-Shylock scenes. But it adds up to a dissonant and confusing take that lets down the play’s more human side. Yes, the point is that these sour, grasping, transactional people are everything they accuse Shylock of being but worse: money is his job, his honour – they’re just greedy. But by making Portia et al the worst possible versions of themselves, their antisemitism feels like less of a betrayal, because they’re obviously horrible people in myriad ways. It still all pays off with that stupendous final scene, a suffocating wave of antisemitic horror. But it’s a bumpy journey to get there.