The Merchant of Venice is often grouped within Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, and shares with Measure for Measure a constantly shifting tone and register. In some ways, all of his comedies do, but these two plays are particularly challenging: Shylock and Angelo are so black and human, so pathological, that they tilt their comedies into truly dangerous territory. Neither play really recovers from their villains, who are so rooted in the moral and spiritual decay of the culture that surrounds them that they prove impossible to banish outright.
Of course, Shylock is a character complicated – some could say compromised – by the history that has followed his creation; when he says, “the curse never fell upon our nation till now. I never felt it till now”, audiences cannot help but think of the horrors of the 20th century. It’s almost tempting to see him as a total victim, and director Anne-Louise Sarks comes perilously close, but to do so is to upend the play. Shakespeare humanises and shades his villain, but he refuses to pull away from the aspects of his character that are genuinely terrifying.
Religion is the whetstone upon which the characters sharpen their hatred, and Sarks brings it niftily into play from the outset. The production opens with all the characters on stage, bar two, suddenly kneeling and reciting the Lord’s Prayer; Shylock (Mitchell Butel) and his daughter Jessica (Felicity McKay), are forced to sit it out on the sidelines. Throughout, Sarks peppers the text with Hebrew, and makes much of Shylock’s robing and disrobing. All of this adds immeasurably to the texture and authenticity of the Judaica, even if the religiosity of the Christian characters, who come across as decidedly secular, seems only skin deep.
Any production of The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in measurement: over-emphasise the bawdiness of the comedy and you miss the lyricism; stress the avariciousness of the characters and you risk undercutting their romanticism. For the most part, Sarks demonstrates admiral control of the shifting moods of the piece. Her direction of the casket scenes – where Portia (Jessica Tovey) has to endure a seemingly endless number of suitors before her true love Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) can win her in a lottery – is beautifully done. It transforms a blatant narrative device into something playful, delicate and moving.
The cast are mostly excellent, especially Butel and Tovey, who deliver every line as if it contained the very essence of their character. This Shylock is deadly serious, and therefore altogether deadly, wearied by abuse but supple and quick to strike. Tovey’s Portia is sublime, bright and clear, so sure of her office and duty that she brooks no doubt in those around her. Strouthos is a noble match for her as the brazen but beautiful Bassanio; he manages to shrug off any suggestion of the gold digger with the power of his golden rhetoric. They seem perfectly, gloriously matched.
As Antonio, the eponymous merchant, Jo Turner is miscast. Considerably older than his cohorts, he comes across as an aged adjunct, rather than admired leader, of his posse. He “acts” sad and “performs” gay rather than being these things, which undermines the efficacy of the trial scene a little. (Only a little, given that it is so sharply written it could perform itself). That posse has been reduced somewhat, with the characters of Solanio and Salerio cut and parcelled out to remaining roles, but Sarks brings much vigour and potency to the Christians, so that their prejudice and intolerance are masked by convincing outward shows of camaraderie.
Technically the production is consummate: Michael Hankin (whose previous design for Bell Shakespeare was Othello) delivers a simple but effortlessly attractive playground for the actors. Paul Jackson’s lighting is warm and responsive, and Max Lyandvert’s sound design is brilliantly nuanced and multifaceted. Everything on stage points to a director in complete control of a vision.
Elements of the play prove too controversial, however, as Sarks tampers with Shylock’s reaction to his daughter’s betrayal. The play doesn’t dramatise this moment, but he is quoted. Although, given the self-serving hypocrisy of the Christian characters, it’s fair to assume he’s been misquoted. Solanio tells us that Shylock publicly proclaims “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!” Sarks cobbles together a scene from this material that suggests a noble father grievously wronged, which leads her to invent another scene at the end of the play with Jessica breaking down in horror at her own actions. It’s curious to see Sarks bend over backwards to deepen the audience’s sympathy for these characters, because she certainly doesn’t extend it to any of the others. It’s difficult not to view this as a flat-out failure of nerve.
Shakespeare’s “problem plays” are amongst his best; they refuse to conform to the rules of genre, and they disturb as much as entertain. The Merchant of Venice throws a savage spotlight on the issue of religious hatred, on the tendency of a culture to obscure its naked prejudice, to “bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament”. This production is beautifully realised, elegant and assured, so it’s a pity it pulls its punches somewhat. Sometimes just performing the play as written is the most dangerous act of all.
Read our interview with Anne-Louise Sarks.