sat 19/10/2019

Globe to Globe: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe | reviews, news & interviews

Globe to Globe: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe

Globe to Globe: The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe

Habima National Theatre go for a pound of flesh without much soul

Habima National Theatre: strung up but listlessSimon Kane

There's a good deal of irony in the most controversial production of the Globe to Globe season turning out to be one of the least interesting. The Merchant of Venice was performed by Israel's Habima National Theatre, a company which has incurred the wrath of some for performing in the Occupied Territories, and there were protestors tonight, mainly of the flag-waving variety. The drama in the yard and the galleries was not matched on stage, I can unhappily report.

Played as a straight period piece, with velvet and doublets and ruffles for miles, this Merchant gave us a rather listless interpretation, despite the cheerful carnivalesque opening, continuous music and frequent playing for laughs. The playing for laughs - Jessica comically hesitating whether to drop her father Shylock's gold into Christian Lorenzo's arms, for example - undermined the tension, as did overly rapid scene changes: when Shylock discovers Jessica has gone, he should be allowed more than 15 seconds to mourn.

Shylock, however, played by Jacob Cohen, was perhaps the one thing this production got right. (Of course, it's an important one to get right.) Freed from the grand shackles of Shakespeare's language, Cohen made Shylock seem… ordinary. Small. A real person instead of a pantomime villain or larger-than-life showman, as he often is.

Forsaking the opportunities to grandstand, Cohen gave us a man who went about his business and wanted nothing from people but civility, which the Venetians never gave him. He was driven to his extremity - he did not always occupy it. The bookending images of Shylock wrapped in his prayer shawl and then looped similarly in the endless contract he signed with Antonio hinted at some greater theatrical imagination than we saw for most of the play. (Regarding the contract, one day someone is going to do a really good anti-capitalist version of Merchant.)

As to race, Habima seemed to have something to say. We saw the princes of Morocco and Arragon, played by minor cast members, black up or moustache up and adorned with national costume, then act as stereotypes, thus highlighting the other forms of cultural crudity that can be read into the play. This reading - that there are lots of xenophobic caricatures in Merchant beyond Shylock - did effectively point out the double standards applied to portrayals of Shylock: he's not the only funny foreigner, you know. Still, one idea was not enough to give the evening the dynamism it sorely needed.

Comments

Another jaded review from the world's most ostentatiously titled arts website. I loved it and so did everyone else I spoke to (at least on the Northern Line). It was the first time I ever saw a production where, the tomfoolery with the rings gels with the plays tragic thread. Shylocks 'conversion' scene was powerful to the point of being unforgettable... and I loved the guys with the boxes on their heads. 10/10

I completely agree, Anonymous.

There was an anti capitalist production of Merchant of Venice. Rupert Goold's las Vegas production for the RSC in Stratford last year starring Patrick Stewart. Unfortunately never seen in London.

Of the 27 productions I saw in the Globe to Globe series, this is the one I enjoyed the least. I had been interested to see how an Israeli cast would deal with the anti-semitism in the play, but I found it unedifying. The complexities of Shakespeare's argument seemed to have been edited out (which, I suppose, translation into another language facilitates). Shylock was not just spat upon in the Rialto, he was gleefully beaten up. Were Antonio's strictures against hypocrisy rendered into Hebrew? I don't know, but all the male Christian characters seemed to be thoroughgoing hypocrites, without redeeming features, whereas Shylock was a devout Jew who would never mourn the loss of a jewel more than that of his daughter. His sentence, too, was altered (at least, according to the surtitle), so that all his possessions were taken from him and he was left homeless and penniless, the archetypal victim. I saw the recent production of TMOV at the Rose nearby, in which a Jewish actor played Shylock very well. That production made his sentence shocking and, indeed, for me actually embarrassing, without removing any of the play's ambivalences. In the end, Habima's version seemed to me a tiresome attempt to manipulate the audience's feelings in one direction only. Whereas all the other productions I saw came across as a celebration of Shakespeare's deep humanity and of our own common (in a different sense) humanity, Habima's TMOV seemed to me to traduce Shakespeare in the cause of propaganda.

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