When you take time off from the sheer magic of the language – including those “set speeches” and individual phrases which have sunk into our collective subconciousness – The Merchant of Venice emerges as something closer to one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays than a simple sun-soaked comedy where boy rightly wins girl and the unjust are duly punished. Macklin and Irving in their days may have wrested Shylock from being a mere comic villain, but modern productions have to contend with the dark-flame shadow cast by the Holocaust.
Glen Walford’s new staging doesn’t quite pull it off. She’s helped by an excellent set (Rodney Ford) with delicate star-spangled arches, and something perilously resembling a cage, as well as a tilted fortune’s wheel with roulette markings). But Ford’s costumes are a mish-mash of periods and styles; I can’t believe that – however great the haste with which Bassanio rushes off to woo and win Portia – he wouldn’t have had time to change out of his carnival clobber first.
For the most part, Carole Sloman’s score evokes that frenetic equilibrium which Venice held between the Muslim East and the Christian West, with a pentatonic hint of Hebraic chant. Where the rock’n’roll finale is supposed to fit into this, I just don’t know. There’s something of the same dichotomy in the performances as well – and, as the Queen’s Theatre is not particularly large, why it was necessary to mike some of the actors (the sound balance definitely needs some fine-tuning) is also a puzzle.
The outstanding characterisations are those of Matt Devitt as Shylock and Stuart Organ as Antonio, Devitt offers us a man of logic, of principles and of deep religious conviction – but who takes all to their wrong extreme. Yet we understand what he is, as well as why he is, and can sympathise if not condone with his final deprivation of wealth, family and faith. Organ shows that Antonio’s natural generosity has become warped by his unrequited love for Bassanio and a visceral anti-Semitism; this is not a pleasant person.
Walford’s cuts eliminate Old Gobbo (no loss; Simon Jessop’s Launcelot demonstrates the limits of gob) but retain “the Salads”. [Dominic Gerrard is Bassanio, all puppy-dog enthusiasms but perhaps a bit short on the sincerity which must have stirred Portia’s heart in the first place. Josie Taylor is better as the pretend lawyer Balthazar than as the Belmont heiress; she held the house perfectly for “The quality of mercy” speech. The three caskets from which her wooers must choose are intriguingly handled as globes with vocalising puppet heads (gold has a Damien Hirst-style diamond-encrusted skull).