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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Merchant of Venice–How NOT to Stage a Play


Last night I went to see The Merchant of Venice at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.  It was abominable, a total waste of time and money, and I walked out at the intermission.

Merchant is a wonderful play.  As I have written recently, it my first Shakespeare Comedy, and for me a good one to begin, for it has the complex character of Shylock, anchored in the villainy of other revenge plays and fixed directly in an anti-Christian and anti-Semitic context.  The character of Shylock and the drama of his personal revenge, taken on behalf of all Jews is strangely set within the frippery of mistaken identities, lost rings, disappointed suitors, and star-struck lovers; but this juxtaposition may make it more salient and dramatic if….IF…the production understands the importance of the two plots and does justice to Shakespeare’s dramatic vision.

I like the play because it is a women’s play – the men are all either shown to be idle playboys, ignorant suitors, or simply gullible fools (although forgiven, as women usually do for their men).  I love Portia’s catty resume of all her previous suitors, putting each one down as clueless and simple.  Arragon and Morocco are even more ridiculous because of the self-important and pompous logic they use to determine which box to pick.  I like the trick of the rings much less – but then again gender- and role-disguise is a familiar in Bollywood cinema as it is in Shakespeare, so I accept it.  All in all, it is yet another way to show strong women.  Portia is not a strong woman a la Lady Macbeth, Goneril or Regan, Margaret, Cleopatra, or Constance…or Joan of Arc, for that matter; or even Portia, Julius Caesar’s wife, but in her complete and easy manipulation of men, she is wonderful.  I love her mocking of men in Act III, Scene iv when she is discussing her disguise with Nerissa:

When we are both accoutred like young men,

I’ll prove the prettier of the two,

And wear my dagger with a braver grace,

And speak between the change of man and boy

With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps

Into a manly stride, and speak of frays

Like a fine, bragging youth, and tell quaint lies

How honorable ladies sought my love

Which I denying, they fell sick and died ….

And twenty of these puny lies I’ll tell,

That men shall swear I have discontinued school

About a twelvemonth.  I have within my mid

A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,

Which I will practice.

Wonderful! We men have not changed at all in 400 years – still bragging about our conquests, strutting, exaggerating.  Women think us little boys now and Portia certainly spoke for women then.

Now, the Washington Shakespeare Theatre did justice to none of this.  Shylock was not the venomous, hateful, vengeful character that Shakespeare depicted in his lines.  He was a buffoon, laughing with his taunting Christian “clients”.  His hateful words in his soliloquy in III.1 are spoken almost in jest with Shylock laughing and hugging Salerio:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,senses, affections, passions?…If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge!  The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction

Hugging? Buffoonery? Hardly.  Shylock is speaking for generations of Jews and giving voice to them.  The play is all about making Shylock both a truly sympathetic character, put upon, scorned, and vilified by generations of Christians, and by confirming his Jewish caricature.  His lamenting the loss of his ducats more than his daughter – in his own words, then parodied by the Swells of Venice – are perfect in tone and measure.  What the WSC has done is totally destroyed this balance.  All is played for laughs. Shylock is never permitted in this production to give vent to his spleen, his frustration, and his hatred.

The scene with Tubal is problematic – how to play it?  He is tossed between good news (Antonio’s likely losses at sea) and bad news (his daughter’s profligate spending of the wealth she stole from her father).  Shylock is torn – the love for his wife (symbolized by the turquoise ring that Jessica gave for a monkey); the love for his daughter, absconding for no real reason; his likely gains at the hands of Antonio – and the scene has to be a very balanced one.  Shylock has to say “Ah, see I told you so, dumb Christian bastard” when he he learns of Antonio’s losses.  He has to be “How could she do that?” with regard his daughter.  The scene has many possibilities for expanding an understanding of Shylock, a very complex character.  Although the scene  is meant to be comedic in one sense – good news, followed by bad news, etc. – it should be played not uniformly.  He is happy to hear of his good fortunes, and incredulous and wondering at the bad news of his daughter leaving.  Nothing doing in the WSC scene – again, lacking subtlety and any sense of understanding the text.

Salerio and especially Gratiano are portrayed as Little Italy hoodlums, low-lifes, and irrelevant; and yet as I mentioned above, Gratiano is the voice of anti-Semitism.  His spitting on Shylock in one scene is incidental, meaningless.  He has to confront Shylock nose to nose, hatred to hatred, Nazi hatred against renascent Jewish resentment.  Instead, he spits as Shylock ascends the stairs, and afterthought.

The suitors Morocco and Arragon, portrayed in Shakespeare’s text as clueless and pompous, are simply fools.  The text is wonderful.  Arragon and Morocco both give marvelous “rational” justifications for their choices of boxes; but they are nothing more than self-serving, vain, and irrelevant arguments.  In the hands of the Director of the WSC production, both are caricatures.  Imagine this:  Arragon is a foppish, dandyish, caricature of a Castro Queen, complete with little fluffy Pomeranian.  The words are lost.  The real satire and commentary about men is lost, irretrievably.

By setting the play in Little Italy, the WSC changes the Venetian swells, the idle rich, the privileged society of the Christian wealthy into an American lowlife.  Why?  Shakespeare did not intend this.  He meant to exaggerate the idleness of Bassanio and his crew – they should have been on the lawns of Gatsby’s Long Island, not bloody Little Italy.  The transposition of the swells of well-to-do Venice to street-tough Little Italy totally misses the point. 

The setting of the scenes with Shylock in Jewish Lower East Side, complete with Orthodox, rocking Jews, women with baby carriages, fruit sellers etc,. is totally irrelevant.  The cultural milieu from which Shylock comes is of no relevance whatsoever to the play.  He is a Jew and a moneylender.  Period.  He is hated for those two characteristics alone, not the smell and feel of the ghetto. 

Finally, the setting of Belmont, suggested by Shakespeare to be the WASP-y paradise to which all the male Swells of Venice aspire, is ignored.  Little Italy has a certain authenticity, although as I have said above, misplaced and unnecessary.  The Lower East Side is also familiar, for irrelevant reasons.  The one setting that requires embellishment is Belmont.  It is for Shylock the Forbidden Palace, the white, Christian, wealthy country club to which he and Jews after him have aspired.  It is for Bassanio and is coterie of swells, the pinnacle of amorous and social achievement.  After all, Bassanio through Antonio went into serious hock because of Belmont.

In the WSC production, Belmont is ignored.

I can’t believe that after 400 years that this total schlock could have been produced anywhere.  My friend, Michael Kott, said to me before we both were ready to leave at intermission, that this dreck was because of his father, Jan Kott, who had promoted the “modernizing” of Shakespeare.  Michael went on to say that this production had nothing at all to do with the spirit of his father’s convictions.  Yes, OK, to give Shakespeare a Soviet or Nazi context IF there is a point to be made (Ian McKellen’s Richard III set in Nazi Germany is a good example); but this idiotic version of setting Merchant in an irrelevant and meaningless context, has nothing to do with Kott’s vision.

In summary, this production was a self-serving violation of Shakespeare.  Horrible.  Stay away, and beware of “modern” adaptations.

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