In the melting pot of Venice, trade is God. With its ships plying the globe, the city opens its arms to all—as long as they come prepared to do business and there is profit to be made. When the gold is flowing all is well, but when a contract between Bassanio and Shylock is broken, simmering racial tensions boil over. A wronged father and despised outsider, Shylock looks to exact the ultimate price for a deal sealed in blood.In the pre-show bit, Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director, talks about Shakespeare was exploring a place even more egalitarian than England -- that in Venice everyone was equal under the law -- and that this play (in which in this production everyone is in contemporary dress) very much feels very relevant to our modern times, a melting pot in which we're not as tolerant/enlightened as we like to think we are. I'm totally mangling the very smart things she said, but I was very taken with her thoughtful perspective.
Polly Findlay directs Shakespeare's uncompromising play, with Makram J. Khoury, one of the most celebrated actors in Israel, in his Royal Shakespeare Company debut as Shylock.
[from ArtsEmerson] [RSC link]
And also, in this production, the entire stage is brass, reflecting the audience in it and thus implicating them in it. Often, artistic directors will say they're doing a thing to do a thing, and I'm like, "Yes, you did the thing, but I'm not convinced that it actually did the thing," but when we panned to the stage and there's Antonio standing in one front corner looking distressed and you see the seats reflected in the entire back wall of the stage I was like, "Whoa." (There's also a metallic wrecking ball swinging across the back of the stage for much of the play.)
The actor who plays Shylock is an Arab-Palestinian who's an Israeli citizen, and he talked about how he very much understood the character of Shylock -- when he says, "You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live," yeah, that speaks to him a lot as a Palestinian.
And I thought this production did a really good job of making Shylock sympathetic. he routinely gets literally spat on, characters equate Jews and devils (both to his face and not), we learn late in the play that Antonio would often pay off people's debts to him thus cutting into the profit he could make as a businessman, and by the time of the court date his daughter (and implicitly only surviving family member) has run off with a Gentile. (Also, Antonio's associates continue to be really mean to Shylock even after they know Antonio's ships have been ruined, which was a little boggling to me 'cause like, You're not helping! But it's arguably an indicator of how much deeper that cultural hatred goes than the veneer of "all persons are equal under the law.") Yes, we think the vengeance he requests is excessive, but we're really sympathetic to him -- we get it spelled out for us at the end of the "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech ("and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.") but I think we've already gotten it well before then. And while I understand Portia turning the law back on him (she knows no history of him and Venice/Antonio -- and we don't get any sense that she's less anti-semitic than most European Gentiles of the time -- only knows that he has sought the ruin of her beloved's best friend), the sentences that get handed down on him feel over and again excessive. The demand that he become a Christian is particularly heartbreaking -- it is the core of his identity, and the only/last thing left to him, and though he accepts the bargain, it very much felt to me like his death was imminent.
Someone commented in one of the filmed bits that Shylock remains firm -- he wants the bond -- whereas so many other characters, that he's arguably the only one with integrity. I definitely thought of this when Antonio goes back on his vow to never borrow with interest. (Yes, I get it, extenuating circumstances and all, and I'm not saying Antonio's choice is wrong -- at least not ethically; it is certainly a risky choice. But he literally says, "Shylock, although I neither lend nor borrow / y taking nor by giving of excess, / Yet, to supply the ripe wants of my friend, / I'll break a custom," and just a few lines later Shylock makes him repeat himelf. And in a world where oaths and foreswearing are such a big deal, this feels not insignificant.)
It's easy to play Shylock like he cares more about the loss of his money than about the loss of his daughter (and/or, that he views his daughter as just another piece of property he has lost), but I felt like this performance did a good job of balancing the two concerns; Cate commented that it's like the loss of the money is easier for him to speak about than the loss of his daughter.
At court, Bellario's letter refers to "the Jew and Antonio the merchant" and I feel like Shylock is frequently referred to as "(the) Jew," doesn't actually get a name. And routinely people comment that Antonio is the kindest man one could find, etc., and what we are shown generally supports that, but we also see him being cruel to Shylock, and I feel like that's a good subtle commentary on the anti-semitism so woven into the fabric of the world of the play.
The actress playing Portia looks very young, which makes the "Happy in this, she is not yet so old / But she may learn" feel a bit jarring, but it does add to the impression of innocent youthful love between her and Bassanio (further played up with her change into a more comfortable floral dress for the scenes with him from the more formal red dress she'd been wearing in the previous suitor scenes -- and speaking of those scenes, the arrogant Arragon was so well-played; Morocco was good, but Arragon was such fun).
When Bassanio names the sum he/Antonio owes, her "What, no more?" is so well-done as a, "What, such a small amount? That's practically pocket change."
Cate commented about how the women have so much money versus the men.
We get the impression that Lorenzo cares mostly for Jessica's wealth and less so for her person. And her comment about his unfulfilled promises suggested to me that they haven't actually officially gotten married.
Antonio is visibly older than Bassanio, which nicely supports Antonio's general sort of, "I've lived my life, don't sacrifice yourself on my behalf, it's the younger generation's time now," as he approaches death.
Burying the lede, while objectively I think the best thing about this production was how sympathetic it makes Shylock, what hit me in the feels most was ANTONIO AND BASSANIO MAKE OUT! In that very first scene, and Antonio is so pained that Bassanio wants to go off and marry some lady in Belmont. From the very beginning, Antonio felt to me like such a tragic hero -- even though he quickly demonstrates lots of icky anti-semitism. It's never clear whether Bassanio is (what we would call) bi or what -- he's about to kiss Portia after the caskets but stops himself and speechifies a bit more, but he does seem to be really enjoying her company etc. in the pre-casket scenes. He and Antonio kiss again at court right before Antonio is to be killed, and Portia and Nerissa both turn away in something like horror, and yeah, the closing scene back at Portia's house, clearly all 3 couples are unhappy (Lorenzo's all stoked about the letter telling how much Jessica will inherit upon her father's death, and she runs away).
While Portia doesn't know exactly that Antonio is the one who pressed Bassanio to give the ring to "the learned doctor," I appreciated that she was very genuine in her "you are welcome" to Antonio -- that she wasn't taking her pre-marital dispute with Bassanio out on Antonio. (I suppose that leaves it as an exercise to the viewer what she thinks about her fiancé making out with Antonio.)
Also, the actress playing Nerissa only has one hand and that wasn't a Thing at all.