The Merchant of Venice
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 13, 2010
One of my few rules as a theatre reviewer is to not see famous/classic plays that I know I dislike. The number of plays on this list is very small (I can actually only think of three: Shaw's Misalliance and Ibsen's A Doll's House are two of them). My firm prejudice against these works is personal and deep and difficult for me to shake under the best of circumstances; the theatre community is far better served by me not seeing these pieces when they are revived.
Well, dear readers, I regret to say that I broke my rule and went to see the new Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare's problematic play about a Jewish moneylender who asks for a pound of the borrower's flesh in the event of default on a debt of 3,000 ducats is, as you have by now realized, the third play on my "thumbs-down" list; but the excited word-of-mouth among my critical peers (though not nytheatre.com's own David Gordon, whose assessment of the earlier incarnation of this production last summer is here), plus the chance to see a pair of actors I respect (Al Pacino and Lily Rabe) in classic roles they seemed suited for, made me decide to break my rule and give Merchant another chance.
I left at intermission.
Daniel Sullivan's production, which I was hoping would show me my error in not appreciating this play, only exacerbated all of my misgivings about it and its fitness for revival in the 21st century. Here's my basic issue with Merchant: it's essentially a fairy tale about the circuitous route that a smart and unconventional heroine (Portia) takes to win, or allow herself to be won by, a dashing though possibly less worthy young man (Bassanio). Where Rosalind and Orlando's romance is contrasted by Jaques's melancholy in As You Like It, Portia and Bassanio's is set against the story of the Jew, Shylock, whose loan to Bassanio's best friend Antonio gets the story in motion. Shylock is a tough character for audiences to deal with nowadays, because he is such an archetypal (and stereotypical) demonized Jew: greedy, grasping, malevolent, vengeful. Shakespeare wrote him at a time when it was illegal for Jews to reside in England (the edict codifying this wasn't repealed until 1656) and when Christian Churches enjoined their members from charging interest on loans on moral grounds (which didn't end until about 1620, according to this article). So the world that could produce a Merchant of Venice was in important ways different from our own; except as an aid in understanding that world, I am at a loss as to why the play would be produced at all nowadays.
Sullivan emphatically is not interested in letting the play be a key to its own time, however; the design concept indicates immediately that he is out to somehow demonstrate something timeless in Merchant. Jess Goldstein's costumes mostly suggest the late Victorian/early Edwardian period (except for Portia's lush red gown, which reminded me of something Julie Andrews might have worn in Camelot), while Mark Wendland's set is dominated by a large circular cage-like structure that covers most of the stage (it's removed for the scenes at Belmont). We see, in a wordless prologue, a group of Jews forced to remain outside this cage (the inside of it, by the way, is reminiscent of a modern stock exchange, akin to the one in Broadway's recent Enron).
I get the idea about anti-Semitism that Sullivan intends to make; what I don't get is why Sullivan makes it fuzzy by mashing up a period of institutionalized anti-Semitism (Shakespeare's time) with periods of relative tolerance (the late 1800s, today). Does Sullivan want us to believe that Jews can't work in stock exchanges nowadays? That Jews were persecuted by Queen Victoria or King Edward VII's governments? And to the extent that the play, notwithstanding its more modern trappings, depicts Venice in the 1500s, wouldn't the Jews have been locked INSIDE their ghetto rather than outside a Christian one?
So you can see that before the first word of dialogue had been uttered, Sullivan had already lost me. He never won me back. The pace felt sluggish throughout, with unnecessary transitional scenes added (for example, Portia gets her picture taken before her first scene starts) that accomplish nothing but make the play longer. Jokes that must have left 'em howling in the Globe fell flat; experienced comedic stars like Christopher Fitzgerald (Launcelot Gobbo) and Charles Kimbrough (Prince of Aragon) got laughs only with silly walks and shtick. Rabe's Portia seems detached and dispassionate while Pacino is only a notch less over-the-top as Shylock than he was as Herod in the disastrous Salome of a few seasons back. (Plus Pacino swallowed many of his lines, and deliberately worked against the meter on others; in fact the only really clear recitations of Shakespeare's poetry that I heard came from Peter Francis James and Matthew Rauch as the exposition-providers Salerio and Solanio.)
Others can and will disagree; will find things that move them and touch them in this play and this production. And that's great—indeed, I sincerely wish now that I had sent someone else to review this Merchant. Believe me, I won't break my rule again.