In these more enlightened times, The Merchant of Venice has become a problem play to produce. The dilemma is how to present Shylock s thirst for revenge in an unsympathetic light without letting the play degenerate into anti-semitic diatribe.
There s a defining moment in Trevor Nunn s production where Henry Goodman s Shylock slaps his daughter, Jessica repeatedly. There s an audible gasp from the audience and his heavily Jewish, yamulke-wearing Shylock is suddenly a monster; we can t hate him for being a Jew but we can hate him for being a woman-beater.
Yet even this is too simplistic. Nunn presents us with a world in which the Jews and Christians not only live apart but can barely comprehend each other (Shylock and Jessica speak Yiddish at home and sing Hebrew songs together). When Shylock prepares to stab Antonio, he mutters a prayer in Hebrew - clearly this is an alien culture. Alexander Hanson s Bassanio and Richard Henders brutish boor of a Graziano are upper class louts, scarcely able to comprehend another world outside theirs.
The other startling innovation is in Derbhle Crotty s Portia. These days she s often presented as a rather nasty, racist snob. This is different; in her “quality of mercy is not strained” speech, she is gently pleading - and one almost expected Shylock to change his mind.
Two other moments stand out. Portia s instruction about the non-spillage of blood does not come out-of-the blue, she is inspired by Shylock s tying of an apron. And when, in her lawyer disguise, Bassanio gives her back her own ring she does not, as most productions do, treat the act as one huge joke but is genuinely broken-hearted at what she clearly sees as a betrayal.
And that leads to a final scene that is not the usual happy ending. One fears for this Bassanio and Portia and the play ends with Gabrielle Jourdan s Jessica singing a Hebrew lament - it is clear that this is one woman who is clearly not sure about her future in a Christian world.
There are few weak points. One is not quite sure how David Bamber s Northern, fastidious, mournful and obviously homosexual Antonio came to be friendly with Bassanio s fast set. And there are some scenes set in a nightclub with 30s cabaret songs which don t appear to add anything to the production. But these are minor points. This is an intelligent, thought-provoking production of a difficult play and, along with his Troilus and Cressida, Trevor Nunn is ensuring that the South Bank is a mecca for Shakespeare lovers.