Written for CultureWars.org.uk - posted here until online:
It’s been hard to avoid director Julia Pascal’s think-pieces about her new production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Arcola, which have been popping up in the press in the last couple of weeks. Her perverse contention is that, as a Jew she finds the play deeply problematic, and in at least one of her articles she goes so far as to suggest that it shouldn’t be performed. As self-publicity goes, suggesting the play that you are putting on shouldn’t be put on is an unusual ruse. But, Pascal thinks she’s cracked it - in her production Shakespeare’s text is framed by a mini-narrative in which a 78-year-old Jewish lady, Sarah (Ruth Posner), who survived the Warsaw Ghetto is visiting Venice. Just before she is about to go on a tour of Venice’s Jewish ghetto she happens upon a group of actors about to start a run through of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic text. She professes to wish that the play had never been written, and then sits down to watch the entire thing.
As ideas go, it isn’t an especially promising one, although it does add a potentially interesting new layer to the play, and meta-theatrics - the business of watching actors performing being actors acting, while other actors pretend to be their audience - can yield thrilling results. Not here. The main problem is simply that this is not a very good production of the actual play.
A majority of the acting is hopelessly generalised, few of the actors give even halfway decent accounts of their roles and the relationships fail to materialise between characters. Beyond this, there are some very strange directorial decisions: when we first meet Portia she is lying in bed with a half-naked youth (credited in the programme as Portia’s lover), which makes a nonsense of her subsequent claim that she will “die as chaste as Diana” - delivered with no irony whatsoever. Add to this textual rough-housing some third-rate physical business, and weirdly inconsistent use of some blue planks - used at only two moments to represent some doors or doorframes, and elsewhere the odd bridge or, uh, ramp (no, I have no idea why there were ramps in this vision of renaissance Venice, but there they are) - along with a bizarre costume choice that sees the girls in the company when not taking a specific role wandering around self-consciously in only white bras, thermal leggings and mini-skirts.
For a production that is meant to be trading on its multi-layered vision of the text, it is oddly one dimensional. There is no negotiation of the position of the actors to either their imagined audience or to their present one. No meaningful use is made of the fact that this company-within-a-company exist when “off stage” for at least one of the people who is actually on the stage watching them. Yet more baffling is the fact that Pascal has inserted new scenes between Jessica and Shylock into the production - presumably, therefore, into this production that is being performed by the ‘actors’ that ‘Sarah’ is watching. Equally bizarre is the fact that on odd occasions, the lady will make interventions. When Jessica is about to run away from her wicked father the old lady begs her not to leave, claiming “I am your mother, or grandmother”. The fictional actor-playing-Jessica’s reaction to this is just as confusing, not dealing with the intervention in any naturalistic way, but as if in character. By wholly failing to delineate the various levels, and sign-post their level of reality, the whole business becomes hopelessly mired in confusion.
Having set up a dynamic in which the woman can and does interject, the points at which she does so consequently seem random in the extreme. Fine, she is moved to remonstrate with Jessica when she is leaving her father - what with these new scenes, and the production’s overall desire to humanise Shylock as much as possible without cutting the entire script, it is plausible, if still unlikely, that a viewer might want Jessica to remain at home with her villainous dad. But if that is the case, why does she remain silent throughout the whole trial scene? After all, if Jessica is rather letting the side down running away from her father, surely Shylock’s behaviour in the court is worthy of at least a brief talking-to. The whole business of Sarah’s interjections distracts far more than it clarifies any useful point about Judaism or anti-Semitism.
There is a point before the final scenes where Sarah asks “Where’s Shylock” and is answered that it is time for the happy ending. This, of course, makes no sense since the production-within-a-production has curiously been painting the play’s romantic leads as vile bigots from the word go. In her hurry to point up the anti-Semitism of the Venetians, Pascal has placed her watching holocaust survivor before a presentation of the most damning imaginable versions of Bassanio and co. For example Lorenzo who marries Jessica is shown getting off with some sort of early-modern lap-dancer prior to his arrival at Shylock’s house to rescue her, and is depicted as only being interested in her money. A directorial decision rather unfairly further flagged up by making Jessica as frumpy as possible, and costuming her in a garish cerise Thora Hird-style blouse. If this is the production that the lady is watching - why is she worrying about the play? It is being undermined quite thoroughly by this company without her interventions. Or, when the actors commence their play is the (actual) audience supposed to imagine that what we the are seeing is in fact some sort of definitive version - in which the Venetians are revealed as bastards and Shylock as a misunderstood victim, despite the ongoing use of Shakespeare’s original (if admittedly eviscerated and appended) text?
Certainly Shakespeare’s play is problematic, and there is no getting away from the fact that anti-Semites over the centuries have revelled in the fact that one of the world’s greatest writers produced a play in which the central villain was “a Jew”. Shakespeare was very much a product of his time, and so to an extent Shylock’s Jewishness is simply a word, an exotic gloss painted over a fairly stock antagonist, in much the same way as the Venetians’, uh, Venetian-ness is wholly bogus. Italians might as well object to being depicted as almost compulsively promiscuous bisexual spendthrifts. They are all merely conjurations of a romanticised far-flung location with absolutely no meaningful connection to their alleged situation. Of course it is regrettable that Shakespeare created a character with such long-term ramifications, but this is no excuse, if you are going to produce the play, for wholly failing to make it watchable.