The Merchant Of Venice – March 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Darko Tresnjak

Company: Theatre For A New Audience

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2007

This was just fantastic. I sobbed and sobbed, and all before the interval. Then I sobbed some more during the interval. Then some more during the second half. Great. Oh, and I also laughed a lot. Also great.

The set was wonderful. At the back were some glass screens, overlapping to allow for doorways. In front of these stood three tables, on which stood three Apple Macs, open, with backs facing the audience. Above the Macs were three screens. Up to the start of the play, these displayed a request to turn off mobile phones, pagers and the like, in English, Hebrew and Italian. I’ll describe later displays as I go. The rest of the stage was bare, and pretty much stayed that way – a couple of chairs were brought on for the trial scene, but otherwise the furniture didn’t get in the way of the action. Just how I like it. The overall effect was high-tech industrial, and the program describes the time as “the near future”. We would see later how well they used the technology. Costumes were mainly suits and dresses, with Jessica, as a page boy, wearing a hoodie, and Launcelot Gobbo sporting jeans, t-shirt and trainers for his opening scene. As often happens, the order in which I report these scenes may not be the order in which they appeared on stage.

The play opened with Antonio entering in sombre mode, all over the city gent. His two friends (Solanio and Salerio) come on with a coffee for him, and try to winkle out the cause of his sadness. They’re much younger than him – this Antonio, as so often happens, likes to surround himself with young, good-looking men. They have a jokey way with them, but Antonio refuses to be cheered up. Along comes Bassanio with his mates, Lorenzo and Gratiano, and we get to see how Gratiano simply cannot be made to shut up. His expressive manner reminded me of Jim Carrey – wide eyes and wide, grinning mouth. His joshing with Antonio is off-key, given Antonio’s mood, and so, finally, he heads off with Lorenzo, and we get to see the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio.

This Bassanio seems quite a serious young man compared with most performances I’ve seen. Antonio is obviously besotted with him, though it’s not exaggerated in this production. There’s a later scene where Solanio and Salerio discuss Antonio’s fortunes, or lack of them, and come to a knowing understanding that Antonio dotes on Bassanio, but even that’s not as in your face as some productions. Bassanio soon gets Antonio’s promise to lend him his credit so he can get a loan, and off he goes to try his luck on the Rialto.

The screen display for these scenes is simply numbers – suggesting the financial sector. I haven’t a clue what was on them, if anything, for the next scene, because this was all about Launcelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock. He comes on, looks around him, opens his bag, and takes out a halo headdress, all white and fluffy. He checks out the audience on his right (our left), and spots an older lady in the front row. She’s his conscience, so he heads over and puts the headdress on her. (She’s spotlit, so it’s obviously down to whoever sits in that seat.) Then he pulls out a red headband, with horns on it! Now we know what’s going to happen, so there’s a murmur of enjoyment as we all look to see whose going to get this one! The spotlight lands between a couple sitting on the other side. The woman laughs, as she thinks it’s her partner who’s been picked, but at the last minute Launcelot swerves, and puts it on her head. Great fun. This is the longest intro to this scene I can remember, and then we get a superb reading of the lines. Launcelot is played by a black actor, and although he’s not rapping as such, he does get a huge amount of humour from the rhythm of the words. I know this piece of text reasonably well, and this was one of the best deliveries I’ve heard.

I think the next scene is the meeting between Bassanio and Shylock, and later Antonio. F Murray Abraham played Shylock with a tremendous amount of intelligence and compassion. It’s clear from his portrayal that he seriously hates Antonio, and that he has much justification, based on the way he’s been treated. When describing his mistreatment by Antonio, he takes his handkerchief out of his pocket, as if to wipe away the spittle – his hatred and the memory of the abuse are physically rooted in him. He also gets across the sense that Shylock has a right to feel this way, that he has a valid culture and traditions, and that he’s living in a society that treats him and his fellows as less than human. The Christians have their faults, but this production has the awareness that there’s good and bad on both sides, and stays neutral, allowing the characters to speak as individuals, rather than mouthpieces for one ideology or another. For example, I was very aware, when Antonio makes some angry comment about the Devil quoting scripture, that the very scripture he’s talking about is largely shared between these religions. Anyway, at this point, Shylock is staying very smooth, and holds back the fullness of his emotions for later. He still speaks out pretty strongly against Antonio’s previous treatment of him, but manages to lure him in to the agreement with clever words. Antonio’s rage and contempt came across more than clearly. He may be a good friend to Bassanio, and respected by his fellow traders, but he’s got a mean streak coupled with some nasty prejudices, all perfectly normal for his time and place, though sadly they don’t seem entirely out of place today.

Now the modern technology starts to kick in. At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa discuss the various suitors for Portia’s hand. Portia hands over her mobile to Nerissa, so she can flick through either their pictures or a contact list. The usual banter is well done, and this Portia isn’t shy about admitting her affections for Bassanio when Nerissa mentions him. She’s also very relieved to hear that her flock of suitors is leaving. At this point, her general factotum, Balthazar, enters. Done up in black like a stage manager, and sporting an earpiece, he announces that another suitor is arriving, the Prince of Morocco. His was one of the funniest portrayals of the evening. To get all the information about the Prince’s arrival, he had to manoeuvre round the stage to get a good enough signal on his headset. Then the Prince of Morocco arrives. With the sound of an aeroplane in the background, the Prince, dressed in a vivid pink jumpsuit, bursts onto the stage, trailing his parachute and a ground crew servant. He’s also a black actor, but with bleached hair, and he oozes arrogance and self-belief. After throwing off his chute, he unzips the top of the jumpsuit to give Portia the full benefit of his manly chest, medallion and all. Much laughter. Off they go to prepare for the selection process, with Balthazar eyeing up the Prince’s servant.

Next we see Bassanio organising his party using his mobile to contact people. Lorenzo is also organising his own party – a raid on Shylock’s house to take Jessica away and marry her. The scenes with Jessica follow thick and fast at this point. I suspect it’s because they couldn’t squeeze in the quick changes necessary to flip between Belmont and Venice, but it worked quite well. When Launcelot takes his leave of Shylock, we see Jessica, looking very downtrodden, polishing some silver for her father. Launcelot is unhappy to leave her (he’s got enough luggage!), and she’s very sad to lose his company. (No senior Gobbo this time.) The short time Shylock spends with his daughter during this scene shows very little affection between them – I got the impression that it’s not because he doesn’t love her, it’s just that he doesn’t seem able to express it. Later, when he’s chopping and changing his mind about going to supper with Bassanio, his main concern seems to be his goods, and the sanctity of his home. One nice touch at the end of this section was that Jessica dropped something when she came down to Lorenzo. I didn’t see what it was, but as Shylock returned, he spotted the item, which turned out to be his keys. He realised something was terribly wrong, and ran to check his house. Too late. For Jessica’s whispered conversation with Lorenzo, when he comes to get her, she’s positioned in the first gallery, in the usual gap between the seats, off to our right. I wondered if she would climb down the post (they have footholds), but no, she used the stairs.

Now we get the first stab at the caskets. Balthazar, showing off to the Prince’s servant, goes along the row of Macs, pressing the right button, and up comes the inscription on the screen. First lead, then silver, then gold. Portia and the Prince enter. He’s dressed down, a bit, and before making his choice, takes a scimitar out of the case presented to him by his man, and gives it to Portia. Then he poses for a picture with her, still holding the sword. I liked this Prince of Morocco; he was flash, but not as over the top as some. I got all of his lines clearly, as I did for almost the entire evening. When he made his choice, the “key” Balthazar gives him is a USB stick, which he puts into the Mac’s port. The inscription then dissolves, like a computer virus simulation, to reveal a grinning skull against a background of flames, and the verse is actually a recording. Brilliant. One of the best uses of technology I’ve seen on stage. Off the Prince goes, followed by his servant – much concern from Balthazar, as they’d obviously been getting on so well, but he has to make do with a “call me” gesture.

One little meaningful point – as Portia leaves, she makes some comment about God saving her from all of such complexion. Nerissa is played by a black actress, and she obviously notices and takes offence at this comment, and rightly so. This reminder of Portia’s own prejudices is echoed later on during the trial scene, to good effect. The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, is dispatched pretty quickly – we only need him so we know what’s in the silver box – a fool’s head – and which casket is the right one. His gift to Portia is a lifebelt, and again he poses for pictures, which she’s got used to by this time.

There are a couple of scenes with Solanio and Salerio, giving us the information about Shylock’s suffering and Antonio’s losses. Then we see Shylock directly, as he confronts these two and their taunts. The two set pieces in this play were handled very well, but this one, “Hath not a Jew eyes?…” was the best I’ve ever heard. The whole speech was knit together beautifully, as Shylock’s justification for revenge. His passion really comes out here for the first time, and the standard lines take on the expression of his absolute conviction that he is only doing what he’s seen others do. Instead of being a reminder of our common humanity, the comparisons are a reminder of the gutter we all come from, and in which Shylock is determined to thrive.

Then we have the phone call from Tubal, still in Genoa (or the upper balcony). This was the one time when I couldn’t make out the lines very well, when Shylock was speaking into his phone. But I got enough to find the scene moving, though a bit disjointed. Tubal sends Shylock a picture of the ring, making it easier to understand how he knows which ring it is, and in his reaction to this news, I found myself moved to tears. The line “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” usually moves me, but here I caught a glimpse of the love that this man had been capable of, and which he’s buttoned up in sorrow since his wife’s death, never showing it to his daughter who needs it so much. It was a tremendous insight into this man’s character, and although I know it’s there, it was more clearly expressed tonight than ever before in my experience. As Shylock leaves the stage, full of sadness, we get the interval, and a chance to blow my nose. How thoughtful of them.

At the start of the second half, Bassanio arrives at Belmont, and goes straight to choosing. I noticed that Portia uses “hazard” in her opening lines to him; this word is also in the winning lead inscription – is she trying to give him a subtle hint? His reasoning came across clearly – it may have been cut, but I suspect it was also down to the delivery. Everyone is happy with the result, and Balthazar brings on champagne.  As they’re celebrating, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, bringing the bad news about Antonio. There’s no specific sign that Jessica isn’t being welcomed, although Launcelot is strangely unhappy about being left behind to serve her and Lorenzo. Given that he seemed to like her in Shylock’s house, why the change? The banter between them later on seems pretty nasty.

Nerissa is decidedly not impressed at Portia’s decision to let the men go off before consummating their marriages, and not too happy about heading off to the monastery either.  However, she goes along with Portia’s plan to follow the men to Venice, though with some reservations.

For the trial scene, the Duke was above and behind us, Bassanio to our left, Gratiano and the others on the upper gallery. Two modern, plastic chairs were brought on, and the centre table brought forward. Shylock puts his scales on these, then unwraps a piece of meat to use as a weight. Antonio is in orange prison garb, with his hands taped together. He’s put in one of the chairs. Shylock is smooth, implacable, and makes it clear he’s out for vengeance. Nerissa enters, to explain that the young Balthazar (Portia’s name in disguise) has come from the other lawyer to give the court the benefit of his advice. One nice touch here is that the actual Balthazar is also with them, with a fake moustache.

Portia and Nerissa are dressed in smart suits, and wearing small moustaches. These disguises are good ones, not that that should stop Bassanio and Gratiano seeing through them. But, as usual, they don’t. The trial follows its usual course, and Antonio is clearly ready for the knife.  The “quality of mercy” speech was a little lacking here.  I didn’t feel Portia was giving it her all, but still there was a fair bit of tension throughout the scene. Bassanio is with Antonio as Shylock prepares to cut, while Antonio’s hands have been taped to the chair. Shylock has Antonio by the neck, reaching round from behind to make the incision, when Portia stops him, and metes out the justice he had been so keen to have. It’s noticeable here how she, such a strong advocate for mercy, is adamant that now Shylock shall have only justice and the law. This is where I find the echo of her earlier prejudice. She may be slow to take offence, but when she does…..! There’s definitely an edge to her delivery of justice. When Shylock is told he will have to convert to Christianity, he reels, and falls to the ground behind the table. Antonio snatches off his skull cap, leaving the poor man distraught.

This scene brings up such mixed emotions, such is the skill of the writing, and the skill of these performers. There’s nothing much to rejoice in here, as no one has behaved particularly well. But Shylock is in such despair that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the lawyers take their leave, Portia is obviously relieved that Bassanio won’t part with his ring. Antonio, probably out of jealousy, urges him to send it after the lawyer, and Bassanio does. There could be problems coming up in this marriage. Portia and Nerissa are still in their suits when they get back to Belmont, and yet their husbands still don’t spot what’s happened, till they come back on in full disguise, with moustaches. The ring bit was as funny as ever, and I always love the way Gratiano rats out Bassanio. Antonio has been happy again, in Bassanio’s company, but is naturally depressed again when he finds out the ring was actually given to Portia, and he’s lost Bassanio after all.

Before they get back to Belmont, we see Jessica and Lorenzo, in bathrobes, having their little lovers’ tiff. On the whole, this is fairly light, but turns sour when Lorenzo mentions her stealing away from her father. She seems to be suffering from guilt and grief at betraying him. Shylock’s skull cap is still lying on the stage where Antonio threw it during the courtroom scene, and Jessica picks it up. By the end, she seems to have come to terms with her decision to run away and marry a Christian, and as she rejoins Lorenzo, they appear to be reconciled. (And Lorenzo’s got a nice bum.)

This was a fabulous production, and I’m really glad we saw it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at