The Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington, 4th September. Review.
“All that glisters is not gold,
Often have you heard that told...”
...but this is the real thing. A classic, twenty four carat performance. And yes I said 'glisters', not 'glistens'. Shakespeare teases us with his words in his quaint, archaic way. He also teases us with his titles. The Merchant of Venice. Singular. Just who does this refer to? Antonio, the well-respected Christian owner of a fleet of trading vessels plundering the rest of the world, or Shylock, the commonly despised, spat-upon Jewish usurer who deals in ducats for interest’s sake. Oh, and human bodies, when the opportunity arises.
Physicality abounds in this story. This glorious Tower Theatre production opens in a massage parlour. Wrapped barely in towels, the men are showing us more than the usual pound of flesh that we expect from this play. Antonio (Nick Hall) is lounging decadently, not quite the finely clad, professional figure we might expect. Bassanio’s towel is skimpiest of all. Next, it’s the women’s turn to expose themselves, in their bathing costumes. Nerissa (Rebecca Hill) is basking on the edge of a splendid indoor swimming pool. Portia (Nisha Emich) is doing lengths. There is plenty of undressing here to go with the cross dressing to come.
On comes Shylock. The figure of hate we have all been waiting for. This might seem an easy part: Mean old Jew. But the challenge for Ian Recordon and all who take on the role of Shylock is to make the audience question whether he is a Venetian villain or a Venetian victim. There is rancour and accusation, and there is bitterness and pain. All understandable, and all washed down with sardonic humour and an English cup of tea. Albeit in Italy. But who is Shakespeare siding with here? He certainly gives Shylock one of the best speeches in the canon designed to give the other side of the story, but what follows sways the issue back and forth.
A bitter taste in the mouth already, and the deal is not yet struck
Shylock and Bassanio (photo: Robert Piwko)
Next we are invited into Portia’s palace and the quest for her hand in marriage begins. Shakespeare seems to find it amusing to put women at the mercy of their menfolk, this time having a dead father bind his daughter's future to a game of chance. In pole position for the prize is the Moroccan Prince. Axel Kengne was previously the masseur and will later be the Duke. Well played every time. But here there is no deal; gold proves worthless. Portia looks genuinely devastated. Morocco has enchanted this extraordinarily beautiful prize, the one desired by so many, but his failing is that he values himself still higher.
Big mistake, Prince! (photo: Robert Piwko)
Adding spice to the anti-Semitism throughout this play, Shakespeare throws in some banter about the prince’s complexion. And as with the abuse of Shylock, we just can’t tell whether Shakespeare was a) being racist or b) just reflecting the racism in his time. No right answer. For now we'll trust he is doing his worst to expose others.
Next, Aragon fails with Silver. Portia is relieved. Finally, the scarcely deserving Bassanio (Dale Robertson) chooses the leaden casket and finds the seemingly lucky lady’s picture inside. The newly betrothed couple look radiant. But, aside from the anti-Semitic focus, here comes the essential theme of the play, the nature of love. Who does Bassanio love most? Portia, his new found treasure, or Antonio, the man who calls him ‘Sweet Bassanio’, the one Bassanio is already ‘engaged to’ in other matters, and the reason why the new husband must disappear from his wife’s arms immediately? Or, maybe, Bassanio loves himself more than anyone else, though there is little substance to his fancy. This Bassanio is a sponger, an irresolute character and a general lightweight. His smile is a cross between a Matt Hancock sheepish grin and a Priti Patel smirk. Horror upon horror.
Lucky / not so lucky in love (photo: Robert Piwko)
Antonio is not so fortunate. His ships fail and an appointment with his executioner lies ahead. Widely regarded as the worst man ever, Shylock, horrible man, will not forsake his bond, having made an oath to his god. In contrast, when the tables are turned, Antonio and the Duke combine to pardon the usurer for his crimes against Venice. So that’s nice. But then they rob Shylock of everything he has, starting with the remainder of his fortune; Shylock has already lost his daughter and much of his wealth. Then, cruelly beyond belief, Antonio orders Shylock to become a Christian. Revenge begets revenge. No wonder the hatred never stops, on both sides. And again, if we have to decide here on Shakespeare’s feelings, I suspect he would take pity on Shylock, despite having destroyed him.
The Merchant of Venice reinforces my view that Shakespeare loved to stir things up. This is a mischievous playwright, as well one who likes to impress us with his knowledge and experiences of society home and abroad. The play is a classic tragi-comic-romance to delight and to challenge us. I mean bromance. Wait, make that a problem play, too, to flummox and to scare us. Possibly even to bring out the worst in ourselves, which we can reflect on in our own time.
The denouement with the rings gives the ladies the chance to claim the upper hand. This goes beyond teasing, but not as far as truly regretting the matches in the first place. All is well, on the surface. So much beauty and fun, but so much heartache and conflict. And there is no real resolution in the end. In this version, there is a happy dance, with lovers in each other’s arms. But Antonio traipses off stage alone in the dark. And finally, Shylock appears one more time. Distraught. Bereft of everything he once had and believed in. Justice is no longer a thing in Venice. Definitely a problem play, then.
Now, a word on the Tower Theatre. I cannot thank you enough for this production. My first Shakespeare play since lockdown. A socially distanced auditorium, a lovely warm welcome in the foyer, a small but perfectly arranged theatre and a fantastic troupe of actors. This was exactly what I had been hoping for, longing for even, after such a dreadful passage of restrictions. Stoke Newington is a place of dramatic wonder. A fine venue to enjoy play number 32 in the canon for me. Just a handful of Henries and a Cymbeline to go now.
Thanks heavens Shakespeare is back!
A dramatic hub of excellence
© Eddie Hewitt 2021
See the Connected Cultures feature: Racism in Othello