From unconventional history play to one of the Bard’s more problematic offerings, The Show Must Go Online followed up King John with The Merchant of Venice (the next alumni edition of the series). This “singularly powerful and problematic play” came with the following trigger warnings: institutional & individual acts of racism & anti-semitism in almost every scene, coerced religious conversion, and explicit references to mutilation.
I’ve only seen the play twice on stage, once as part of the Globe’s three-play touring selection in 2018; a small cast, chopped-down text, and two other plays in the actors’ minds meant (for me) the production had very little impact. The other stage version I saw was by Shit-faced Shakespeare – so you can imagine how that one went! The Merchant of Venice technically is a comedy, and both of these committed fully to that notion. Something that needs to be thought hard about when companies tackle this play.
This week’s guest speaker was Jemma Levy – a director, associate professor, and artistic director of Muse of Fire Theatre Company. She described The Merchant of Venice as a bit of a “hodge podge”, and “one of the most convoluted” of Shakespeare’s plays – possibly reflecting the problematic content. Although there are some really uncomfortable passages, what does come through is Shakespeare’s understanding of outsiders; all different types are mixed together in the “multicultural republic” of Venice, and you see whether they react to their outsider status by assimilating, segregating, hiding, acquiescing or confronting. What also makes the play a tough watch is that the protagonists aren’t great people – Shylock has sympathetic moments and can be likeable, though you still wouldn’t identify him as a hero. Though Levy understands why people can be reluctant to watch or engage with the play, it “does make us think about who to side with” – questioning “how we judge each other” and then act on it.
Bassanio is in love with Portia – but a wealthy heiress needs a wealthy suitor, so he turns to his close friend Antonio (the titular merchant) for yet another subsidy. All of his funds are tied up in merchandise & ships but he can never say no to Bassanio, so agrees to be the guarantor when Bassanio manages to procure a loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. There is a history between Antonio & Shylock, including regular bouts of vocal antisemitism from the merchant, as well as his zero-interest money-lending that forces Shylock to offer lower rates in order to maker a living. Despite Bassanio’s misgivings, they agree that if the loan cannot be repaid on time Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh in payment. Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is having to contend with a whole host of suitors from various countries. Her father’s will stipulated that Portia can only marry the man who chooses the correct casket out of gold, silver & lead; each is labelled with a short cryptic phrase, though these prove of no use to the Princes of Morocco & Arragon – but with a little help from Portia’s household, Bassanio is successful. But what will become of the bond..?
What’s becoming increasingly clear to me is that the TSMGO team need to be running things when theatre makes a full return. As well as consistently producing entertaining & brilliantly conceived productions, they are particularly sensitive when it comes to the thornier issues covered in Shakespeare’s productions – and take the time to educate the audience, as well as cast each show appropriately (credit again to the superb Sydney Aldridge). The UK theatre scene may well be a world leader in many ways, but it needs a reformation and to follow The Show Must Go Online’s example.
It was interesting to hear afterwards about the 1am discussions the team had over this play, and how they did their best to avoid making the show into an adaptation; where they could they tried to make judicious cuts & interpretations – for example, when Portia makes racist comments about one of her suitors, her maid (Nerissa) makes sure she knows she did something wrong, and it’s proven to have been effective when one of Portia checks herself and doesn’t make one of her later offensive comments. With the excellent comprehension of text coming from both director Robert Myles & cast, I found myself understanding the characters a little more; Lee Ravitz as Shylock, in particular, managed to tread the line really well – you could see the points where Shylock could be the bigger man, but completely empathise with his desire to get back at Antonio (though wishing that there was a less extreme way to go about it). Similarly, you feel aggrieved at the injustice of the ‘justice’ he faces at the end of the play.
As well as getting to grips with the story much better this time around, I was also interested to note the amount of Greek mythology references – be it the golden fleece, Scylla & Charybdis or tragic lovers (Orpheus, Thisbe, etc.). Shakespeare studied Ovid at school, so there are always classical references peppered throughout his works, but I’ve never quite noticed them so much before; possibly a testament to TSMGO producing the plays in order of writing, and getting one new Shakespeare play guaranteed each week.
It wasn’t all super-serious though, with Robbie Capaldi pulling out all the stops to provide comic relief in his turn as the Prince of Arragon – a brilliantly OTT Spaniard in terms of both accent & actions, and with some excellent props (check out “the portrait of a blinking idiot”). It’s probably a good thing that Portia & her ladies need to display barely disguised ridicule in his presence, as there was a definite threat of corpsing at more than one point! Tiffany Abercrombie (Portia) and Hannah Ellis (Launcelot Gobbo) both did a wonderful job of creating engaging performances from two not always likeable characters, and Mark Hammersley’s Bassanio felt a lot more relatable than the character might have done in other productions.
As ever, some more great uses of the technology, with Launcelot needing camera work and the caskets having their own screen – plus musical accompaniment each time one was unlocked. The Show Must Go Online continues to be essential viewing.
Next week: Henry IV, part one
The Merchant of Venice was broadcast on 17 June 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.