One must go for a film with an open mind; a film best impacts you when your mind is a blank page to the film.
With plays – well-known ones; especially Shakespeare’s, therefore – it is natural to see (and foresee) a production through glasses coloured by the vision at the heart of the previous version you witnessed; or your individual reading of the text (or one impressed on you by a keen, but perhaps narrow-minded, teacher of ‘ing-lit’).
So, I must admit that, when, many moons ago, I booked my ticket for last night’s performance of The Merchant of Venice, my expectations were “low and in a bondman’s key”: I was attending mostly for the captions, as well as fulfilling the servitude of an all-consuming completeness – desiring to see every run the RSC puts on at Stratford, whenever possible: especially, of course, of the work of my beloved Big Bill. (Or ‘Big Willy’, as they call him in the States – or, perchance, The Notorious B.I.L.L.?)
But, this ‘problem play’ is (or, should I say, was…) way down my ranked list of his dramas: firstly, because the portrayals of Shylock I have experienced usually did little to quell or balance the insinuated and inferred anti‑Semitism; and secondly, because, at least on the page, it is tough to garner any empathy with (let alone sympathy for) (m)any of the narcissistic, Christian-by-name-but-not-by-nature characters. (Besides, none of the engendered, concocted couples seem destined for long or happy relationships – you therefore do not (ahem) will them on: doomed, as they appear, to fade out of their professed love as they fade out of the closing tableau, finally lit only by candles….)
[Incidentally, Vaughan Williams adapted much of Lorenzo and Jessica’s musical discourse from this one-scene fifth and final act – “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” – interpolating brief comments from Portia and Nerissa – for his compact-but-breathtaking masterpiece, Serenade to Music. “In arranging Shakespeare’s text, [he] followed the word order, but cut words, phrases, and whole lines, and repeated at the end eleven words from the third and fourth lines”. The resultant beauty reportedly “moved Sergei Rachmaninov to tears”; and has been described (perfectly, to my way of thinking) as “fourteen minutes of sublime poetry coupled with some of the composer’s most transcendent music: a divine pairing that ascends to heavenly heights”. Sadly – and unusually for the RSC – I found Marc Tritschler’s “music concept for this production… based on the historical background of the play”, to be fitful and intrusive; more technical than emotional in its delivery and effect.]
By the way, my precursory lack of enthusiasm for The Merchant of Venice was not helped by chancing on some lousy – but, as it turns out, of course, either too early, or just plain wrong – reviews. (This one – by Louder Than War’s Dave Jenning – thankfully matches more closely my experience and delight.) I (not to mention the other critics) really should know better, by now, shouldn’t I…?
Anyway, I need not have worried: yesterday’s performance – directed (and a tad trimmed) by Polly Findlay (behind the marvellous Arden of Faversham, last year) – opens the play up in such a way that no longer are we facing a world of simplistic monochrome judgments and two-dimensional portrayals, but a multicoloured, timely interpretation that writes its dualities and realities large; and where reflection and depth – as demonstrated by the conspicuously burnished set – are the order of the day. As Gregory Doran writes in his introduction to the programme: “We have attempted to take a bold and uncompromising look at issues [what it is to be an outsider; the themes of racism and revenge] which resonate with contemporary audiences…” – and they have, to my mind, succeeded admirably.
The production isn’t faultless, though: featuring several annoying – and ever-present – (what I can only describe as) gimmicks (much, I felt, like the over-insistent soundtrack). The massive perpetual-motion pendulum – at the back of an almost permanently empty set – is quite distracting (and I wasn’t sure if it was either a very obvious representation of Bassanio’s core bisexuality; or something far more obscure that had passed me by – “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel s[w]ings…”). I also found it quite disconcerting to observe the majority of the cast queuing up on benches, in each wing, throughout: waiting their turn to strut their stuff (or perhaps having missed the last number thirty-two bus, er, gondola, to Belmont…). Additionally, with no vomitoria, the actors had to occasionally clamber on and off the thrust platform. Hilarious, perhaps, if you’re lethargic Launcelot Gobbo (Tim ‘Banana’ Samuels), lounging in the stalls, joshing with a surprised, but seemingly willing, audience member. Tough, though, on a seventy-year-old Shylock (Makram J Khoury). However, such a position clearly signifies his sentenced, sententious downfall: moving him literally beneath the other characters.
Once on stage, though, all members of the company are flawless – even if, again (as with Othello – which I shall be reviewing fully, next week), I wondered what the point was of casting a woman as ‘duke’: not that Rina Mahoney wasn’t authoritative; but to describe her by her male title, and then address her as “Lady” is a dissonance, for me, too far (and I am not, generally, against such cross-casting – it just requires justification).
[Talking of such… Nadia Albina (easily proving Sarah Bernhardt wrong) – here as Nerissa; and as the Duke of Venice in Othello – brings a gripping presence to the dramatics that bodes well – from my perspective – for the transparency and inclusion of disabled (different-in-a-good-way) actors at the RSC. I would love to have seen her in the rôle she understudies – Portia (however mesmerizing and pitch-perfect Patsy Ferran is: demonstrating a deep-but-fragile strength; mixed in with some wonderful, subtle, girlish coyness, and fleeting, knowing, expressions) – such is the charismatic authority and intensity of her bearing, her portance.]
Diamond flaws are not always a negative phrase. In fact it is these flaws that often lend a diamond its distinctive beauty. It is often these flaws that make a stone look unique.
– Wikipedia: Diamond flaws
And yet – despite all my quibbling – as you may have gathered, I was entranced. I also came away (curiously unlike Lewis Carroll) from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre feeling overwhelmingly sorry for Shylock – my sympathy having moved on (as perhaps it is designed to be) from Jamie Ballard’s anguished, heart-on-his-sleeve-wearing Antonio (weeping openly, but quietly, centre-stage, before the house lights go down – as part of as soulful an interpretation as I think I have ever encountered): a man who never though, in my opinion, really earns his redemption. This empathy for “The villain Jew” is, in this instance, perhaps a consequent emotion of my still-strong memories of Jasper Britton’s belligerent, broken Barabas – thoughts abetted by a still-tender, all-too-immersive understanding of what it is to be on the receiving end of such senseless discrimination and victimization.
All the same, Khoury – an Israeli Arab: not that, in the end, this matters as much as I had imagined (although it is consummate casting) – brings an essential humanity and rationality to the character; an almost undeviating forbearance in the spitten face of xenophobia: that makes the essayed enaction of his desired revenge all the more perturbing (and which – if their reactions were any measure – drew in the youngsters at the front of the audience in a way I found both heartfelt and heartening).
Only on for another three weeks or so, I shall be rushing back to the RSC box office to try and grab tickets for another viewing: knowing that, last night, I witnessed something almost-indefinably special, quirks an’ all – perhaps it is the pace and sheer energy of the production; the mostly youthful cast (as with Maria Aberg’s 2013 stunning, thrilling As You Like It…)? – wanting to impress it more forcefully into my memory; knowing (gladly so) that it will tint and taint the way I see, I read, the play, the next time…. Hopefully, then, I will be in for another remarkable revelation.
The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation.