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A CurtainUp Review From Stratford
The Merchant of Venice

(Main Theatre)

Ann O'Brien

This is a stunning production directed by Gregory Doran and highly recommended. The emphasis is on a clear text-based exposition of the play. The sets are both simple and powerful and the sometimes awkward backwards and forwards movement of the play between Venice and Belmont is handled with great ease and pace, driven by the narrative. It has wonderful performances, especially by Phillip Voss as Shylock and Helen Schlesinger as Portia.

It's a problematic play nowadays as its portrayal of anti-Semitism is hard to cope with. In some productions the audience is made to be overly sympathetic to Shylock and this can unbalance the momentum of the play. Here, the director lets the work find its own balance in that the anti-Semitism is vividly shown in the behaviour of the Christian Venetians but Shylock's nastiness is allowed its place also.

Shylock is an unpleasant, powerful and passionate man who wants to win. His motivation in pursuing his pound of flesh is triggered by the defection of his daughter whom he deeply loves. He understandably blames the Christians for her desertion and focuses his revenge on Antonio (Julian Curry). In the court scene, one's sympathies are with the Christians but their smug superiority is hard to take. In political terms Christian domination wins and it feels uncomfortable.

And so, since Shakespeare is so marvelously able to show individual human suffering in the generalised context of society, the audience's sympathies reel from Antonio to Shylock. We don't want Shylock to win but his final humiliation is so painful it is almost unwatchable. What the production does is to make us confront our own endemic cultural prejudices. We are pleased by Shylock's defeat but deeply sympathetic to the person and appalled by the triumphalism of Christian society.

All the time the emphasis is on the text. From the opening, the verse is wonderfully spoken with a strength and clarity that sets the tone for a strong play, not a gentle comedy.

The principal characters are multi-dimensional, real human beings. Antonio is a thoughtful, mature man who, though fully in love with Bassanio (Scott Handy), is reconciled that his love will be unrequited. He is resigned to make do with what he has left at the end - his wealth. Bassanio as portrayed here essentially a silly, immature, callow, pretty young man who might or might not be transformed by Portia into a worthwhile person.

This Merchant's Portia is a fabulous one. She shines with intelligence, wit, determination and true insight. The tension when Bassanio has to choose the correct casket is incredible, mainly because of the obvious but wonderfully restrained longing of Portia with which we fully identify. Her intelligence makes her see clearly that Antonio is her rival and the interplay between the three of them in the subsequent scenes is subtly charged. She and Antonio have the clarity of knowing both what they want and the hazards attached.

Although not one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, this is a fine, thorough reading that illuminates the text from within.
Review posted May 18, 1998.

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