The Theatreguide.London Review
The Merchant of Venice
Cottesloe Theatre, Summer 1999; Olivier Theatre, Autumn-Winter 1999
Sell-out hit this summer at the Royal National Theatre's smallest house, Merchant has moved to the largest with no loss in power.
Trevor Nunn's production is moving and human, and one of the rare occasions when setting a play in a non-Shakespearean period significantly increases its evocative power.
The time is perhaps the late 1920s, with Bassanio (Alexander Hanson) and his contemporaries somewhat dissolute playboys who hang out in a seedy nightclub. Portia (Derbhle Crotty) is a flapper straining against the restraints of the older generation.
Antonio (David Bamber) is older, more like a mousy accountant than an entrepreneur, clearly out of place in Bassanio's world and drawn there only by his understated but unmistakable homosexual love.
The period and mildly debauched setting can't help suggesting Christopher Isherwood's Berlin, though it is a sign of the production's confident subtlety that the allusion is never forced. Still, a 20th Century spectre hangs powerfully over the play's antisemitism.
Henry Goodman's Shylock is very much a small businessman, joking ingratiatingly with customers but never fantasising that any real connection is possible.
He's also very much a European Jew: at home he talks Yiddish with his daughter (Gabrielle Jourdan), already halfway to being a housefrau, though he can move from loving intimacy to sudden anger in an instant.
I have seen more majestic Shylocks and more tragic ones, but never one more recognisably real. Goodman is the first who doesn't just recite 'Hath not a Jew eyes,' but lives it at the moment.
He makes the speech not only thrillingly fresh but also the key to the play: Shylock suddenly realises, at the moment he says it, that revenge is available to him as an option.
This is the basis for his behaviour thereafter, the confidence that he is just playing the Christians' own game and the pleasure of turning it against them.
And when he is defeated, it is a double loss: he is deprived of vengeance and reminded that, as a Jew, he will never be allowed to win.
Watch what Goodman does with the scales at the end of the trial scene, and the way that gives him the moral high ground.
(Watch, too, how Jessica's response to being given his fortune at the end turns what is usually played as fairy tale happiness into a condemnation of Christian hypocrisy.)
These new moral reverberations continue in the often anticlimactic last act, as Bassanio must prove himself worthy of a happy ending.
In one of those flashes of insight that make you wonder if anyone else ever really understood the play, Trevor Nunn shows us that the significant moment is not in all the comedy about the rings, but when Bassanio must be willing to forgive Portia's false confession of infidelity.
For moments like these, and for its overall power, this Merchant will excite you whether it's your first or your fifteenth.
Note: Henry Goodman subsequently won the Olivier Award as Best Actor and Trevor Nunn as Best Director.
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