Richard Olivier s production of Shakespeare s Merchant of Venice is a multi-cultural affair. Actors from Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Nigeria join the British cast providing some indication of what diverse nationalities would have flooded to such a strong trading centre as sixteenth century Venice. Some indication but not all, for what this production lacks is the sense of enmity that existed between the various groups.
In particular, the venom that the Christians displayed towards the Jews. Jack Shephard s Antonio, far from being a rabble-rousing Jew-baiter, is portrayed as a mild, benign old man, an innocent victim of Shylock s cruel bond.
As Shylock, German actor Norbert Kentrup, never really conveys the thirst for vengeance that drives him on. There is no sense that he is being motivated by the cruel persecution of Antonio and his cronies nor that he is seeking revenge for the loss of his daughter. Even in the courtroom, with Antonio bound at his mercy, he is still checking the sums in his account books and adding up the figures.
It is racism, coupled with greed, which drives this darkly comic quest for love. Or at least it should be. Sadly, in this production, Olivier seems to ignore the darker side of the play altogether. The action is set around a swirling carnival, orchestrated by a masked Launcelot Gobbo. And, though Marcello Magni, looking for all the world like Harpo Marx, is a fine clown in the true Commedia dell Arte tradition, he looks as if he wandered on the set from a different play entirely. Olivier also manages to ignore the homosexual element in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio; yet we re not furnished with any alternative explanation as to why the former should consider sacrificing his life.
Kathryn Pogson is a most appealing Portia, visibly urging on Mark Rylance s rather loutish Bassanio in the casket scene, and Nicholas Monu s Prince of Morocco elicits sighs of sympathy from the audience.
This, however, is a strange muddle of a production. Behind the clowning, some of the darkness should have been allowed to come out.