The Theatreguide.London Review
The Merchant Of Venice
The Pit Winter 2001-02
The Royal Shakespeare Company's new production, designed for extensive touring after brief London and Stratford runs, is a clean and clear a version of The Merchant as you are likely ever to meet, and I would not hesitate to recommend it even to a Shakespeare neophyte.
(Does anyone need a plot summary? In order to woo the rich heiress Portia, Bassanio borrows from his friend Antonio, who must in turn borrow from the Jewish money-lender Shylock. Shylock offers, as a seeming joke, a no-interest loan with the penalty of a pound of Antonio's flesh if he defaults. Bassanio gets the girl by passing a test of wisdom, but Antonio can't pay. It takes Portia in disguise to save him from Shylock.)
The play lends itself to inventive re-interpretation, with recent productions underplaying the anti-semitism to stress the Christian society's coldness and corruption, or finding latent or overt homosexuality in Antonio's affection for Bassanio.
As fascinating as these may be to those seeing the play for the fourth or tenth time, they can warp it for the beginner.
For that reason I applaud director Loveday Ingram's evident decision to forego reinterpretation and concentrate on making the plot, characters and language absolutely clear and theatrically alive.
One minor exception is costuming the play in the early twentieth century, an effective shorthand for establishing an old-boy culture in Venice from which Shylock is excluded. (Another is hinting that all is not well in the marriage of Shylock's daughter to a Christian.)
Beyond that, everyone is pretty much as they appear on the surface, which does not mean that they are shallow. Bassanio (Paul Hickey) loves Portia (Hermione Gulliford) but he is also a bit of a fortune-hunter, and in need of being taught by her the meaning of commitment.
Shylock (Ian Bartholomew) is not played as broadly or intensely Jewish, but simply as a small businessman tired of having the big guys kick him around, and energised by the opportunity to fight back.
The straightforward production means that the play's flashes of humour all work, as they don't have to fight the tone of the rest. Darren Tunstall is an amiable Launcelot Gobbo and Chris Jarman an attractively exotic Prince of Morocco. Even Dickon Tyrrell's Gratiano, too often an oppressive class clown, remains attractive.
Throughout. Shakespeare's verse is spoken slowly and punctuated and stressed to keep the sense of each sentence. But this is in no way patronising or dumbing-down the performance.
On the contrary, it is an immense courtesy to the audience, something the RSC led the world in for decades and has occasionally slipped from in recent years.
Shakespeare is supposed to be alive and easy to follow in the theatre, and hoorah for the RSC for returning to that basic value.
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