THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

DARK, STARK AND DANGEROUS:  A MERCHANT FOR TODAY

What an odd, stark, angry, intelligent Merchant this is! Wholly unlike the last RSC production, Rupert Goold’s spectacular Merchant-of-Vegas gameshow. Polly Findlay sets it modern dress, on a bare stage whose floor and backdrop are gold bars, mirroring the auditorium and making us visible witnesses to the case of Antonio, the shipowning speculator, and his deal with Shylock the Jew. A gilded pendulum swings constantly at stage level; the three caskets descend too, 65 feet from the grid on wires , bald as geometry diagrams – cube, cone, cylinder .
Jessica’s window is right up there too, high over the blank gold. Lancelot Gobbo, face-painted and inevitably annoying (not Tim Samuels’ fault, it’s the least engaging Shakespeare’s clown), makes his entry sitting among us and shouting up. The Prince of Aragon shakes hands with the front row with bonhomous posh confidence before getting the caskets wrong. Young Christian Venetians swagger like Bullingdon-boys , mock old Shylock, steal his daughter and his money , cringe when he turns on them and cheer when Portia’s chop-logic strips him of all dignity.
It is a production full of jarring unease, its text mined with sharp intelligence by Findlay (fresh themes sprang up from lines I had never noticed before). Antonio (Jamie Ballard) sets the tone, staring alone from the stage as we settle, confiding his neurotic, edgy depression to a fully lit house, a man in trouble. The coxcomb Salerio comes on with a cowlick quiff like a raven- haired Tintin to josh with him: street-boy Gratiano romps with “skipping spirits”. But it is Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s handsome Bassanio with whom, Findlay makes snoggingly clear, Antonio is in love. Ballard handles brilliantly the Merchant’s borderline-hysterical agreement to the loan which will take his lover away to chase Portia, pledging “my purse, my person, my extremest means”. Yet having warmed us to him in his loneliness and need for his preening bisexual pal, Ballard jerks us back to discomfort by spitting in the old Jew’s face even as he borrows his money.

Shylock, inspired casting, is Makram J.Khoury: Palestinian, patriarchal, heavily accented, standing out from the brash youngsters in Semitic appearance and venerable age. He makes them seem small, petulant, vicious: but we know what he is going to want with his knife and this jars against our sympathy. His “Hath not a Jew eyes?”, addressed to the jeering lads, is electrifying, a real plea; it is mirrored in the court scene by Portia’s directing ‘The quality of mercy” right at him. It is as if the play, the very audience, pleads with each to be human, and fails.

Findlay finds in her Portia, too, a troubling ambiguity. Patsy Ferran (last seen as Aharrrr-Jim-lad in Findlay’s NT Treasure Island) at first seems permanently set to “sprightly”, but with her transformation into lawyer finds a sharp authority and something oddly nasty in her shrill taunts. It gives a raw, undeniable depth of disillusion to that final rom-com conclusion which always sits so oddly. After the tense trial , Antonio’s dissolution into unforgettable moaning terror and Shylock’s“I am not well” , the sourness endures. Portia is the boss , and like us has little faith that Bassanio won’t stray. Even more strikingly, hearing that Lorenzo inherits Shylock’s remaining fortune makes his stolen bride Jessica flee the stage in distress. Convert she may be, but her father’s humiliation shadows any happiness.
Gobbo (reduced now to candle-monitor) dresses the stage with dozens of flames reflecting in the gold; dissonant religious chants sound above. We are not convinced that all is resolved, nor should it be. Findlay’s achievement is in making that unease clear, sharp and decent: where nobody comes out well, nobody deserves to be happy,
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org to 2 Sept
Live in cinemas on 22 July   Rating :  four  4 Meece Rating

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