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A CurtainUp Review From Stratford
The Merchant of Venice
Review posted May 18, 1998.
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
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
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.
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