Last night’s broadcast of The Merchant of Venice was one of the more fraught of the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon screenings so far. Perhaps it was the reflective glitter of the golden mirrored wall that towered over the set, but the picture quality was much fuzzier than I’ve seen it for any live broadcast so far. The sound levels varied throughout, with the mixing desk repeatedly playing catch-up to dial up an off-camera actor’s voice. And at one key moment, Makram J. Khoury’s Shylock pulled his iconic scales from a duffel bag, only to find that they were tangled. Whether this was the production’s intention was unclear – there is something appealing about the image of the scales of justice being irretrievably tangled and useless – but Khoury’s microphone caught the character’s/actor’s efforts over several minutes to untangle it, distracting from the far more important dialogue elsewhere onstage. The technical issues were a shame, as the quality of the screenings has been so excellent to date, and the camerawork and attentiveness to the detail on the thrust stage continued to capture this production as well as possible.
I say ‘as well as possible’ because this did not seem to be a production that lent itself to the screen. The abstract, near-empty set made for a visually sparse palette on the screen, the overwhelming blackness of the whole exaggerating the scenic bareness. The high wall reflected the theatre audience but not, of course, the cinema, losing something of the presumed mirroring effect of the glittering stage. And the height of the wall, with first Jessica and then a choir of terrifying child singers barely visible at the top, made it nearly impossible to take in the whole when both levels were in play. Yet these choices were the production’s, with Polly Findlay’s vision placing tiny actors against an edifice of opulence and narcissism surrounded by empty space, a fittingly depressing – but depressing still – reading of the play.
In this Venice, every character seemed to be deeply flawed. The boys – for boys they were – were uniformly bigoted, manipulative, cruel and self-serving, with varieties of unpleasantness emerging as the production spun out. The most obvious of these was Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Bassanio who, in a textbook display of coercion and passive-aggression in the opening scene, strung out the older, lovelorn Antonio (Jamie Ballard) to serve his own needs. Ballard’s Antonio was deeply emotional, in tears at the start of both acts and utterly broken by his open devotion to the younger, diffident Bassanio. Antonio kissed his young friend hard on the mouth, while Bassanio withdrew then tactically returned the kiss. Bassanio proceeded to hold his older friend’s head, impressing on him physically and visually the importance of his request, before pouting and walking away as Antonio admitted his current insufficiency, then turning and gracing him with attention again as Antonio caved and offered his credit. Later, as Antonio faced trial, Bassanio effectively rewarded his friend with kisses and focus, all the while keeping an emotional distance that seemed to be at the heart of this production’s negotiations with a problematic play.
The other Venetian men were no better. In a subplot I wish I’d been able to see more of, James Corrigan’s thuggish Lorenzo celebrated the financial gain of wooing Jessica, initially missing her timid arrival on the lower stage while he embraced and danced with a bag of banknotes that she had already passed down. When the two arrived in Belmont, Scarlett Brookes’s Jessica repeatedly tried to befriend and speak to Portia, but was again and again pulled away and shushed by Lorenzo, who refused to allow his new wife to assert her own identity. As she sought comfort in Tim Samuels’s brusque Gobbo (the latter’s part having been hugely condensed), Lorenzo squared up to the clown and ordered him out, then grew angry at Jessica. The tensions manifested further as they listened to the (very strange and unpleasant) music of the spheres, and the last we saw of them was Jessica running out in rage and disgust after hearing of the gift of Shylock’s estate to her bullying husband.
It was a pleasant surprise to see yet another alumnus from my Warwick days, Jay Saighal, on the RSC stage (Jay’s seminal Bergetto in ‘Tis Pity is reviewed here, he being the standout in one of the best student productions I’ve ever seen), and he and Owen Findlay as Solanio and Salerio handled the mocking of Shylock with appropriate contempt and cruelty, Findlay (as with Ballard’s Antonio) spitting profusely in Shylock’s face. The young men were rounded out by Ken Nwosu as a motormouthed Gratiano who at times single-handedly energised the stage, his abrasive behaviour (again, especially in the first scene) trampling all over feeling. Cumulatively, the Christian men of Venice were immature and dangerously unthinking, and learned nothing from a trial scene which resulted in their enemy’s fall. It was a pessimistic view of manhood, and one the production made no attempt to apologise for.
By contrast, Patsy Ferran’s Portia was judiciously edited to remove her more racist lines (especially about Morocco) and was positioned as the production’s conscience, albeit she too was frequently blind to the needs of others. Her jealousy of Antonio was manifest, and her scheme with the rings designed to humiliate her rival as much as Bassanio. In a lovely comic touch, she impatiently hurried along a pregnant servant who was taking her time delivering a note, and as Bassanio chose the caskets she emphatically pronounced the ‘ed’ sounds of the song (which she sang alone, herself) and nodded towards the lead casket, preventing Bassanio going straight towards the gold casket. Her willingness to get around obstacles made her an attractive lead character, and Ferran gave a tour de force performance of expression and nuanced administration of her estate. Yet her journey took her to a place of disappointment, with little triumph as she passed out ‘gifts’ that were received sadly and left the stage without waiting for Bassanio.
Ferran was best in her over-the-top reactions to the sober Morocco and the hysterical Aragon (Brian Protheroe) – happily, played not as a stock Spaniard but as a lecherous older man who thoroughly earned the deflation of his ego after his pelvic thrusts towards the much younger Portia. But there was a broader problem in the production, perhaps exaggerated by the focus of the camera, with reactions. With very little to do in the sparse set, the camera frequently caught actors (especially Nadia Albina’s otherwise amiable Nerissa) overreacting enormously to what others were saying, often seeming to react and then repeat the reaction redoubled. It’s a difficult one to put one’s finger on when you can’t see the whole stage at one time, but there was something unpleasantly and unnecessarily exaggerated in much of the non-verbal action that seemed to trample over the subtlety.
For this was, in essence, a subtle production, concerned to show the uncompromising problems which selfish people bring upon themselves. The social commentary here was that of Gobbo, who began the production sitting among the audience, delivering his ‘fiend/conscience’ monologue to a poor audience member. Gobbo wandered sardonically through Venice and Belmont, the proverbial sad clown commenting wryly on action and, in the final scene, bringing in a seemingly never-ending amount of candles to decorate the stage. At its best, the production found beauty and pathos, most notably in Khoury’s beautiful, heartfelt delivery of ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ and his complex negotiation of revenge and despair as he clung desperately to his bond as the one thing he could still believe in. The gradual breaking of his character during the trial scene, particularly in the quiet cruelty of Gratiano, saw the production at its best as it laid bare the apparatus of hate.
At its worst, Findlay’s production felt like a school play. The cast sat on benches to either side of the stage to no discernible purpose, and the tiny space for upstage exits on either side of the massive wall led to log jams around the benches that sat next to those exits. There was no obvious governing rationale for whether characters returned to their bench or went off upstage, leading to a displeasingly messy choreography. This was most notable in the doubling of Nwosu as Gratiano and Morocco; Nwosu was excellent in both roles, but when you have a large company (including, as ever, two essentially non-speaking actors), why double two roles that follow each other in consecutive scenes, particularly when it leads to a frantic costume change for the actor, and not seek any form of thematic rationale for the doubling? The effect was of a production that had rehearsed its scenes well but had forgotten to look at the transitions.
The bizarre overall effect of this production was of something excellently performed but unfinished, as if it hadn’t quite left the rehearsal room. And yet despite the problems with blocking, reactions and sound, the production found a huge amount of emotional subtlety in a series of fine performances. That the performances appeared to be happening in a spatial vacuum was presumably part of the point – this was an empty world, empty except for the allure of wealth and the ringing sounds of hate, and Findlay’s production took an appropriately pessimistic view of such a world, leaving Antonio unable even to leave the stage, collapsing onto a bench in tears, alone.