The current rise of antisemitism around the world gives extra resonance and relevance to Shakespeare’s 16th Century play on usury, religious conflict, revenge and the manipulation of justice. Abigail Graham’s direction packs a serious punch, with a stellar cast who draw out every nuance of the text. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is brilliantly heightened in this beautiful candlelit production set in the present day, but which could relate to any era.
Young Bassanio is a spendthrift and hedonist, partying with his buddies and going through money as though there’s no tomorrow. Needing cash to pursue his wooing of the rich heiress, Portia, he turns to his friend, the merchant, Antonio, who has bailed him out previously. Antonio agrees and asks Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan. A deal is made, in which Shylock will lend Bassanio 3000 ducats against an unusual guarantee – if he defaults, Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock is a man in turmoil. The constant pounding of discrimination and antisemitism from the population of Venice, who treat him as a foreigner and sneer at him, cause him to despise his customers in return. In addition, his daughter, Jessica, has eloped with a Christian, Lorenzo, leaving Shylock bereft and wanting revenge for the loss of his daughter. When Antonio is unable to repay the debt, Shylock demands payment of his bond. Will justice prevail, and if so, whose justice? Is there room for mercy in justice? Can those in charge only rule through trickery?
As a play built on dark themes, the lighter moments in this production come as welcome relief. Sophie Melville’s Portia and Tripti Tripuraneni as her maid, Nerissa, relish the opportunity for a fun game-show performance, as Portia’s suitors engage in a “Deal Or No Deal” choice between three boxes to win her hand. Melville subsequently brings a smug feel to Portia’s “The Quality of Mercy” speech, an interesting take which focuses on the character’s feeling of superiority over Shylock. As her potential husband, Bassanio (Michael Marcus) is suitably louche and flirty and unserious until reality strikes.
Shakespeare’s characters are all complex, none more so than Shylock. Without even being the titular character, this play is primarily Shylock’s story, as he holds up a mirror to the treatment of “outsiders” in society. Adrian Schiller infuses the man with a desperate vulnerability which demands the audience’s sympathy. It’s a performance of great depth and emotional resonance. As for the relationship between Michael Gould’s Antonio and Bassanio, there’s a far-from-subtextual homoeroticism to their interactions, which in many societies would cause them to be as much despised as Shylock. They nevertheless continue to indulge in antisemitism while happy to borrow from him. Marcus and Gould bring a layer of realism to these unlikeable characters, who have no problem with gaming the system as long as they win.
Sarah Beaton’s design is partly industrial bleak, partly baronial hall, the elegant candelabra overhead and around the set flickering light and shadow onto this complex tale. The musical accompaniment, led by Zac Gvi and a three-piece band hidden up in a gallery, is perfect, with Eleanor Wyld’s evocative vocals providing a stunning finale as Jessica re-asserts her Jewish heritage.
The Merchant of Venice runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 9th April. Tickets are on sale from: https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on/the-merchant-of-venice-2021/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 2nd March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★