The Merchant Of Venice is in trouble. In all the version I’ve seen of it on stage and screen, this “comedy” has become a very serious play, with one issue- Shylock. The Jew. The events of the early 20th century have unbalanced the play, drawing on the discussion of anti-semitism to turn this into the play’s all-overpowering main point, with the rest of the play relegated to the sidelines. The dour mood of this sequence in the new interpretation (which inevitably paints Shylock as imperfect but ultimately wronged) inevitably affects the rest of the play, souring the relationships of the other character and turning the whole thing (as in Theatre For A New Audience’s production) into a deeply depressing and emotionally difficult play.
So thank God for the Globe’s new production. It’s been reviewed badly by some critics who have criticised the play skating over the anti-semitism but, after all, it IS set in the Renaissance. Here we have a Merchant that isn’t about race or racism, but about a group of imperfect people who get themselves into increasingly ridiculous situations. It’s a comedy of relationships, it’s a tribue to unrequited love, and it’s a story of an old embittered man who takes things far too far, but it is NOT Shylock’s play. Considering the man’s only in five scenes, that seems to make sense. Rebecca Gatward’s production shows that the Merchant is not only relevant to us nowadays as a warning against racism or a tragedy, but can still exist on the English stage as a comedy, if an often uncomfortable one.
This is partly down to a negative, John McEnery’s performance as Shylock. Never quite summoning up the gravitas that usually accompanies his famous speeches about racism, McEnery becomes a doddery old man with a vendetta against the Christians disproportionate to any crimes we see or hear of. Closer to the stock villain mould, McEnery’s performance was uneven and somewhat uninspiring, neither evil nor understandable enough. It made it easy for the audience to laugh at him, but they could have given him a little more humanity without taking away from the comic thrust of the play.
If anyone’s, this was Bassanio’s play. While not the best performance, Philip Cumbus was pleasingly boyish as Bassanio- forgetting Portia’s name as he tried to wheedle money out of Antonio, jumping up and down in excitement and hiding in shame from Portia as she talked about the ring in the final scene. Cowardly and quick to escape blame, he pointed the finger at Antonio, accusing his just-rescued friend of forcing him to give up the ring, and in an incredibly funny moment he mimicked the voice of his nagging wife to the disguised Portia, to hysterical reception. Gatward’s reading of the Venetian Christians, as basically shallow boys, was not so different from that of Theatre For A New Audience, but here they were comically immature rather than dangerously emotionally stunted. He was ably supported by Mark Rice-Oxley’s motormouthed Gratiano, and the two men gave energetic performances as we followed them on their journey of discovery to a happy ending.
There weren’t many deep readings here. Antonio’s homosexuality was implied, and abused by Bassanio who kissed him as he agreed to help, but not built on to extremes as in Trevor Nunn and Michael Radford’s screen versions. Launcelot’s insubordination to Lorenzo was here just the petulant whinings of a servant, and even Jessica, who almost always nowadays seems to need to have a relevation about her Jewishness at the close of the play, seemed happy enough with her new husband, if shocked at the news of her father. The pleasure of this production was in the comedy, which saw a revolving skull and a jack-in-the-box jester greet the Dukes of Morrocco and Arragon in their trials and Solanio move through the groundlings as he described Shylock’s rantings of “My daughter! My ducats” to individual audience members.
One of the best moments came in the form of the Christians masque, played in full after Jessica’s escape. The vividly-costumed revellers acted out a very funny skit of the lovers’ flight; a demonic Shylock gestured wildly while a Lorenzo with huge dangling phallus distracted him and a whorish Jessica lifted his moneybags from his oustretched hand. A Christian priest then wedded the two, who proceeded to copulate wildly on stage. The real Jessica stood to one side with mouth open, appalled at the debauchery she was running away to join. Moments like this set this production apart- giving it depth and inventiveness without ramming the issues down our throats.
There were moments when I was troubled by the laughter of the audience- I’m not convinced that any audience, past or present, should be finding the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech funny. Reviewers complained that playing the play for its comedy as this production did is allowing audiences implicitly to express anti-semitic sympathies themselves. I disagree, and point to West End musicals such as Spamalot, which features an entire song sending up the Jews’ role in theatre. People dismiss the Globe audience as cretinous, but in this production it was a bitter old man they were laughing at, and his Judaism became a side-issue. If more directors can be brave enough to tackle the comedy of the Merchant, rather than continually rehashing the anti-semitism angle, then perhaps the play has a future after all.