The Merchant of Venice
2001: Chris Hunt, Trevor Nunn
I confess that I am reticent and curmudgeonly about the imposition of some kind of political or extracurricular agenda on a performance of Shakespeare. In far too many cases, these productions tend to take the play and its content for granted, while using its apparatus (where apposite) to say, “And look! This is kind of like that!” while discarding the core of Shakespeare’s narrative. Thus it was with considerable apprehension that I approached this one. In terms of visual setup and cultural milieu it seems most to approximate the 1930s in Germany — the bedraggled end of the Weimar Republic and the period of the Nazi ascendancy. Accordingly it is played out among the seedy cabarets, barren cafes, and cocktail parties of a decadent Berlin, and of course the rising tide of anti-Semitism is everywhere in view. It could as well be in Fascist Venice, I suppose, though I believe the original intention was to invoke Berlin. The specific place is not really dominant in the film: what is important is its tonality.
The potential for a tendentious and politicized reading of the play is fairly obvious. Despite my initial apprehensions, however, the play is generally as faithful to its source as any other, and more than most. Its performances are good to brilliant. Trevor Nunn perhaps gave the first thrust to the notion that Shakespeare should be transposed into another time frame as a matter of course; but he also seems to be able to refrain from the arch exhibitionism one finds in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Ian McKellen’s Richard III. It keeps an eye on the main matter and respects what Shakespeare was doing.
The film is based on a version that played on stage to considerable acclaim by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it is more cinematic than that, and there is no audience in view. The sets are still fairly stagy. The art direction is in many scenes rather oppressively monochromatic, with here a sepia tone infusing everything to give it the look of an aged photograph, and there everything reduced to shades of blue. Again, this is something that can be overdone, but here I think it’s used to good effect in order to support the narrative and the performances.
And there are some truly remarkable performances. The real standouts are two. First is that of Derbhle Crotty as Portia. She is enchantingly mysterious, smart, sophisticated, and strong. She is mature, but not implausibly old for the part; she carries all aspects of the role with conviction and control. When she assumes her role of lawyer in disguise, she enters wholly into the character, and brings an immediacy to it that offers her somewhat-too-familiar lines a new breath and sense. She is also a character in a way that Portias often are not: we see her not merely as an effective agent of change and plot resolution, but as a vulnerable person who is herself grievously harmed by some of the interchanges forced upon her.
Second, Henry Goodman’s performance of Shylock is simply astounding. It is as finely honed as any other I have ever seen: Shylock is neither exonerated nor flatly vilified. His Jewishness is not mocked, nor is it reduced to a set of markers that are largely external (ringlets in the hair, long robes, etc.). Instead, it is an organic part of who he is. Jewish traditions are respected (at least by the perspective of the film, though obviously not by most of the characters). The setting emphasizes the place of the Jew as an outsider in this particular culture, fostering the alienation that drives Shylock’s passion for revenge. It sensibly reminds us, in terms that are probably much more immediately familiar to us from the 1930s and 1940s, of what was also true of the Venice of Shakespeare’s day. Venice, after all, had what was probably the original ghetto as a place for the sequestration of its ample but unassimilated Jewish population. The script inserts bits of Yiddish and Hebrew conversation and song that bear directly on Shylock’s relationship with his daughter, which is developed more subtly than any other I have seen, though most of it is done by means of “stage business” — at one moment Shylock is slapping Jessica’s face without any cause at all, and the next he’s apologizing for it with a gesture. It does a good deal to externalize and dramatize the wedge between them that leads eventually to her departure, and it also shapes the palpable grief she exhibits at the end, when at Belmont she finally seems to realize that she was born an outsider, and she remains an outsider — but now she no longer has even the minority identity with which she started. Her final fragment of song bespeaks an abyss of personal despair.
David Bamber’s Antonio is reserved and not very likable; it’s hard to tell what he is thinking most of the time. He’s a troubled and enigmatic character, with some good aspects and many repellent ones; his preliminary sparring with Shylock is a queasy business in which it’s very difficult to respect him at all. Virtually all the other characters are played more than adequately, and there are occasional bits of characterization and personal interaction that lend enough lightness to this that the darkness is all the more clearly perceptible. There is a particularly funny bit of stage business when Gratiano announces his intention to marry, and each of three different women seem to think she’s the intended. But all these smaller interactions serve the larger dramatic forward motion of the play.
The dynamics between the disguised Portia and Shylock in the courtroom scene are complex and never entirely clear, fraught with the ambiguity that Shakespeare at his best can suggest. Shylock seems half-convinced by Portia’s plea for mercy, and I wind up hoping each time, though I know better, that even then he will make the right choice. That’s quite an achievement in a play that I’ve seen probably at least two dozen times in one form or another. The end of the film, too, combining the resolution of the ring trick and Portia’ disillusionment and unease with what she’s done, is almost unbearably intense, and affords no final glib release. A few lines at the end are rearranged to devastating effect. This is probably not the best version of the play for a new viewer or a younger audience, and it may bore those who are chiefly concerned with getting the basics of the story out there in unambiguous terms. It is genuinely brilliant, though, largely because it has the courage to address a range of still-pertinent questions and to admit that they have not been solved. It’s a stunning performance that will not leave a sensitive adult audience unchanged.
Antonio: David Bamber
Balthazar: John Nolan
Bassanio: Alexander Hanson
Duke of Venice: David Burt
English Video Suitor: Adrian Penketh
German Video Suitor: Giles Smith
Gratiano: Richard Henders
Italian Video Suitor: Patrick Baladi
Jessica: Gabrielle Jourdan
Launcelot Gobbo: Andrew French
Leonardo: Mark Springer
Lorenzo: Jack James
Morocco’s Manservant: Vernon Douglas
Nerissa: Alex Kelly
Old Gobbo: Oscar James
Portia: Derbhle Crotty
Salerio: Peter De Jersey
Shylock: Henry Goodman
Solanio: Mark Umbers
Stephano; Masked Man: Michael Wildman
The Prince of Arragon: Raymond Coulthard
The Prince of Morocco: Chu Omambala
Tubal : Lawrence Werber
Video Suitor: Charles Millham
Video Suitor: David Arneil