THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: Royal Shakespeare Company
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
- Director: Polly Findlay
- Set design: Johannes Schütz
- Costumes: Anette Guther
Polly Findlay’s Merchant of Venice for the RSC contains few clues as to time or place.
This might have focused attention on basic issues of religious marginalisation, racism and commerce but in fact leaves the production oddly rootless.
The treatment in The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is however by turns, sprightly, bold and full of surprises. Casting Makram J. Khoury (born to a Christian family in East Jerusalem) as Shylock struck many as a publicity stunt.
And yet there is no attempt to make any currency from his background and to anybody without a programme, Khoury would either have been unknown or vaguely familiar as having played a Palestinian diplomat in The West Wing.
Johannes Schutz’s gaudy design features a polished brass stage and what I took to be a construction company’s wrecking ball (others saw it as the emblem of a pawnbroker) with the suggestion being that Shylock’s business interests lie in slum clearance and property development. The burnished reflections of fellow theatre-goers serve to remind us early on that ultimately we will all be cast as either jury members or the public gallery at a trial.
As Portia, Patsy Ferran rises to her initial challenge of proving credible as the most intelligent character in the cast, and is adept in dropping subtle Freudian hints to the effect that she is helplessly in love. Surprisingly, she then proves so leaden when disguised as a lawyer that you wouldn’t retain her to get you off a parking fine.
Generally, the principals are acted off the stage by a succession of wonderful natural comedians in minor roles. Brian Protheroe plays Aragon in the style of a ghastly combination of Neil Hamilton and a spin doctor, slowing matters when he draws a round of applause at his exit. As Morocco, Ken Nwosu elevates his role beyond caricature; he is so detailed and sympathetic that you almost wish Portia might end up with him rather than the vanilla Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio. An initial lingering kiss gives a strong impression that the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is sexual but the dynamics of many other alliances are left open.
The music (mainly unaccompanied human voice) directed by Marc Tritschler is ravishing but the creative team shows restraint such that when the lyricism is implicit in the dialogue, as in the final Belmont scenes, the text is given room to breathe.
Occasionally glib and flashy, this is by no means a concept production. At two hours 10 minutes there are enough ideas (not always coherent) to leave one engrossed, with the normally funereal and formulaic casket scenes appearing new-minted. Not a patch on Rupert Goold’s Las Vegas game show version but Findlay underlines the elasticity of both plot and signature speeches to explore social and economic alienation.