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Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
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A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
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Richard II
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The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Timon of Athens
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Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeareana

Available versions

1908: Stuart Blackton

1972: Cedric Messina

1973: John Sichel

1980: Jack Gold

2001: Chris Hunt, Trevor Nunn

2004: Michael Radford

2015: Polly Findlay


The Merchant of Venice
1972: Cedric Messina

The DVD release of this play is part of the collection “Maggie Smith at the BBC”. The transfer is gorgeously done: the image is crisp, without image bleeding, and the color balance is superb. Clearly the scenes were shot on a sound stage, rather than on location, but the set design is adequate, and the treatment cinematic throughout. The production has little if any background music, but the incidental music is competently done.

Maggie Smith, known nowadays more for her roles in the Harry Potter movies and Downton Abbey, was already an actress of prodigious capability with considerable Shakespeare experience by this time. She had already played a nuanced Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello. She was nearing forty when this was made, and though she was still remarkably striking and youthful in appearance, I think that this may be slightly too old for the role of Portia. For all that, however, she carries it off well, at least on one approach to the character, which is (I would argue) not given quite enough lines, and which leaves several avenues of approach open to anyone who is playing the role. The whole subplot of her suitors and the trial of the caskets seems (to my taste) somewhat too detached from the rest of the story, and Smith’s performance there is just a mite too reticent: as each of the suitors makes his choice, she looks a little bit like the proverbial deer in the headlights. For all that, she delivers her lines with a calm and confident assurance, and in the trial scene she brings forth some of Shakespeare’s most overworked verse with a sense that it’s not really a dead recitation piece — something of an achievement in and of itself.

The role of Shylock is played by Frank Finlay, whose long and distinguished has brought forth a number of remarkable performances (one of my own being his rendition of Porthos in Richard Lester’s mid-1970s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers). He manages to thread the fine line between the extremes for the character, without simply draining him of interest. He presents a character who is both alienated and embittered and still in many respects sympathetic. It’s as good a performance of that role as I think I’ve seen, though of course opinions will vary.

Charles Gray plays the role of Antonio with a profound weariness touched slightly with an aesthete’s ennui, almost as if the role had been assumed by the older dissipated Oscar Wilde. Gray was a good actor, and that’s probably not really wrong for Antonio. I don’t find the character at all appealing, but then again I’m not sure we’re supposed to. Why Bassanio is so close to him is of course one of the long-standing problems in the play; many suggestions have been offered, but none of them is absolutely convincing, I think.

As a collection of individual performances, I think this is probably one of the best versions of The Merchant of Venice available. As a whole artistic entity, with thematic continuity and a sense of the structure — particularly the structure that holds the two story-lines together — I’m less certain. That rift troubles many productions of the play, and understanding and articulating their relationship is difficult. I don’t think this one has many missteps there, but neither does it really bridge the gap. If I were certain that there was a coherent way to do so, I’d be more confident about it myself.


Antonio’s Servant: Laurie Goode

Antonio: Charles Gray

Balthazar: Rolf Lefebvre

Bassanio: Christopher Gable

Duke of Venice: Robert Harris

Gratiano: Malcolm Stoddard

Jessica: Ania Marson

Lancelot Gobbo: Bunny May

Leonardo: John Hug

Lorenzo: Edward Petherbridge

Nerissa: Nerys Hughes

Old Gobbo: Ken Parry

Portia: Maggie Smith

Prince of Aragon: John Moffatt

Prince of Morocco: David Spenser

Salerio: Clive Graham

Shylock: Frank Finlay

Solanio: Richard Morant

Stephano: Alan Tucker

Tubal: Charles Leno