Sunday, 30 August 2015

A wilderness of monkeys…

Tubal: One of them show’d me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turkis, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
– William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

This is what I wanted to call my book. However, my publishers thought it too… complicated.
– Howard Jacobson

Returning, last night, to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to see – from a somewhat different perspective – The Merchant of Venice, I was glad that my initial response of “feeling overwhelmingly sorry for Shylock” was reinforced. In fact, at a debate in the Swan Theatre, this following morning – Anti-Semitic Plays? (the highlights of which should soon be on YouTube) – there seemed to be a great deal of conjoined empathy, from the panel, for the “gentle Jew”: from “rising star” Patsy Ferran’s “standing in his shoes” at the age of fourteen, in a school production; to Howard Jacobson’s “retelling” of the play (entitled Shylock is My Name – which will be published in February 2016).

Patsy Ferran (Portia) and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Bassanio) – photo by Hugo Glendinning/RSC

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

That “different perspective”, though, originated in two variations from my initial viewing – “twice blest” – one physical; one sensory. The former stemmed from the fact that I was sitting diametrically opposite to my original position in the Circle – reinforcing, in my mind, the (not-quite-insurmountable) difficulties thrust stages present (although, obviously, not with sounds, but rather with sightlines). The latter was the lack of (what can be intermeddling) captions: which – with a company that is as pellucid in proclamation as this one – meant that I could concentrate more on the drama: and I found myself even more immersed than before in both the language and the action.

As a result – apart from reinforcing the certainty of Ferran’s future that “shines brightly as a king” (she was just as animated and intelligently expressive in the debate) – I really feel I should rectify the absent list of great performances missing from my original review. Again, Jamie Ballard’s heartfelt, anguished, “deeply melancholic” Antonio (“as part of as soulful an interpretation as I think I have ever encountered”) – the “Merchant of Venice” – elicits sympathy, rather than empathy. Makram J Khoury’s transcendent Shylock. Scarlett Brookes’ textbook tortured touchiness as his nervous daughter, Jessica – always on the outside; always seen as an outsider, an “infidel” – prompting the compassion you feel for none of the “narcissistic, Christian-by-name-but-not-by-nature characters”. Owen Findlay’s conscientious Salerio (again, I sense another “all-hail hereafter”). Ken Nwosu’s mercurial, almost out-of-control, Gratiano – contrasting neatly with his boastful-yet-sensitive portrayal of the Prince of Morocco (cleverly changing costumes and character on-stage). And, finally, Brian Protheroe’s “pretentious, supercilious”, arrogant Aragon: channelling Leslie Phillips to perfection (so well, in fact, that his departure was accompanied by loud applause)!

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sadly, the ending – as I think it always will be: Jacobson described Shakespeare as having “lost interest” – is still weak (despite the wonderful language); although is handled as well it can be, here, I feel. In a way, the prolonged last scene gives you the chance to lament Shylock’s loss; his absence (his implicit wrenching from – to borrow from Romeo – “the devout religion of mine eye”; although Judaism is as much about identity as it is faith, I believe…); to mourn the consequent lack of heart, of focus, of a fulcrum; and reflect on the conclusion that “none of the engendered, concocted couples seem destined for long or happy relationships” – or, as Ferran said: “no-one comes out of this well”.

Once more, I came out entranced, though; immensely moved; and was grateful for the drizzle freshening my face; for the curtained moon painting an eldritch sky-in-negative.

Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanc’d would make me sad?

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