The Merchant of Venice
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
May 8, 2009
A cry for mercy over vengeance, an indictment of persecution, an inquiry into the divide between the law, justice, and morality, and so much more—The Merchant of Venice from the Watermill Theatre (UK) and Propeller, set in a prison and performed by an all-male cast, is an excellent example of a Shakespearian play recontextualized in such a way that it is brought to new light.
The core ideas of the play are masterfully rendered by Edward Hall's direction and a resplendent cast of actors. A particularly standout performance is given by Richard Clothier as Shylock. Whether in the depths of agony at the loss of his daughter and all his fortune, or relishing the sweet taste of revenge as he prepares to cut out the heart of the object of his enmity, his vocal and physical choices are consistently brave and creative. Clothier is clearly a seasoned actor, with the intelligence and emotional dexterity to own a complex role in a totally new and profound way.
Prisoners climb down three stories of cells, as well as emerging from cells on wheels, designed by Michael Pavelka. They are accompanied by clinking-clanking spoons against metal bars, pounding drums, and moving a cappella spirituals by Propeller and Jon Trenchard.
The world of the play blends the epic, fabulous world of sacred ceremony with the anger and perpetual fear of those incarcerated. The bribe-driven, ethnically sided, and overtly gay prison culture remain palpable throughout the production. The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is emphasized as romantic, which is arguably directly implied by the script. The all-male production deals with the necessity of three female characters in the play creatively, and in a way that contributes to the play as a whole. Both Portia and her maid Nerissa are drag queens. As Portia, Kelsey Brookfield has some indulgent pauses in his speeches, but remains vocally consistent, emotionally present, and genuinely catty. Chris Myles as Nerissa achieves an amazingly captivating and amusing performance with little significant dialogue. It must have been the heels. Portia, throughout her suitors' ceremonial casket-picking, is ostensibly a woman, and has men from outside the prison come in seeking her fortune through wedlock. (A slightly odd, but acceptable stylistic shift occurs with the entrance of these foreign characters.) But when Bassanio comes-a-calling, the message from the three caskets subplot (suitors pick from a gold, silver, or lead casket, one of which wins them Portia), is ever the more present: "All that glisters is not gold," or value is often found where it may not seem to lie. Picking the lead casket, and thinking he was betraying himself in seeking a woman for her money, Bassanio finds Portia to be a man, and his true love. It may seem a bit Crying Game-esque, but this choice contributes honestly and interestingly to the overall story.
Shylock's daughter, the other female character, is a little more difficult to deal with. But given the circumstances, I found it easy to concede that Jessica could have been visiting her father Shylock in prison (implied with desks, like a visitors' area), and broken in disguised as a man to be with her love Lorenzo. How the couple, having betrayed Shylock, is able to remain undetected in the prison, both to him, and to the prison guards, is suspect, but Jon Trenchard's performance is so innocent and convincingly feminine, that the confusion is easily overlooked.
Further strong choices, such as Shylock tearing out a mocking inmate's eye in rage during his famous "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, the constant stabbing usage of the word Jew, and the superb coordination of action in crowd scenes, all make this production enthralling as well as thought-provoking.
The essence of the play, the demonization of the minority figure of the Jew by the majority of Christians, followed by the Jew's relentless demand for justice/revenge in the form of a pound of Antonio's flesh, only to be repaid with further mercilessness, comes across especially strongly in the major trial scene. Antonio is bare-chested (with a small cross tattooed above his heart) against an upright table. Shylock, bearing a small blade, and putting a small scale on the table, is prepared to satisfy his last remaining rights against the de facto representative of a world that has treated him so horribly. But most importantly for this production, as an audience member I remained unable to take one character's side.
This production opens and closes with the line from the trial "Which is the Christian and which the Jew?" The seeming implication is that although many might see the figure of the Jew as immoral due to his engagement in usury, in fact the figures from both religions are equally merciless. Antonio, once in the position of power, does not have Shylock killed, but leaves him no money and has him forced to convert to Christianity. Shylock cries in response, "You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live."
It's easy to see ourselves and our country as figures of morality and our enemies as merciless killers, but this play prompts consideration of that fact that first of all, our enemies are our enemies as a result of our actions towards them, not arbitrarily. But furthermore, unless we stand by our morality, there is no real difference between us and those we call our enemies except that we call ourselves good without upholding the spirit of the word.
"The pound of flesh, 'tis mine!"