Director Bruce Jamieson’s robust approach to one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays tackles head-on the issue of religious intolerance at its heart. Whilst losing some of the sparkle of the romantic subplots it directly addresses important contemporary questions.
In Venice, young Bassanio wishes to court the beautiful Portia, orphaned and ‘richly left’ in Belmont, a boat journey away. From a previous chance meeting he knows she favours him, and all that’s necessary for him to claim her as his bride is to pass a short test posed by her father. Money presents a problem, but his good friend Antonio, who’s made a fortune from foreign trade, will surely come up with a loan to fund the venture.
Alas, Antonio has invested all his spare cash into a shipping venture, but he’s happy enough to stand surety for Bassanio to borrow from Shylock, a rich Jew. When Shylock draws up a bizarre contract demanding a pound of flesh, alarm bells ring for Bassanio but Antonio reassures him the ships will be back well before payment is due. He agrees to what Shylock calls his ‘merry bond’. From here on in, things can only go down hill.
Comic scenes featuring Shylock’s wavering servant Launcelot Gobbo are excised, as are those of highly unsuitable suitors failing the test, which depends on choosing correctly between gold, silver and lead caskets. The debate about Christian versus Jewish religious beliefs, imaged in the text in terms of hazards and sacrifice versus hoarding money, reaches a climax in a horrific court scene with Portia disguised as a barrister and Shylock whetting a kitchen knife in expectation of receiving his due.
Even more horrific, to modern ears, is the judgement, which hinges on a verbal quibble, and the sentence. Even as the mind revolts at the idea of the bond being paid, it sounds grossly unfair to modern ears. Indeed, the man sitting next to me in the intimate theatre-in-the round at Greenwich groaned as he heard it. A young woman further along the row, who had been holding her hands in front of her face as Antonio prepared for the knife, gasped aloud.
Whilst the leads and supporting cast are all strong, Holly Hinton is particularly impressive as Jessica, the daughter caught between duty to her father, Shylock, and her love for Christian Lorenzo. Richard Unwin as Salanio brings a dry insouciance to the role, complimented by Robert Paul’s brisk Salerio whilst Ashley David is a lively Launcelot, his hollow-cheeked appearance convincingly refuting Shylock’s charge of ‘gourmandizing’ in his service.
Al Fiorentini effectively restrains the central role of Shylock, encapsulating more of the patience which he claims as ‘the badge of all our tribe’, than the ‘cut-throat dog’ that Antonio has labelled him. His understated delivery of ‘Has a dog money?’ when asked for the loan and lack of vehemence in the trial scene speaks more of the gnawing inward trials of prejudice than of an inherently hostile disposition.
The coherence of production design embraces a minimal set, standing for both the Rialto and Belmont in the first half, with painted back wall and a huge oak barrel, augmented for the trial scene with ominously red drapes and rope nooses. Costumes are unflamboyant, the men in sombre frock-coats and women in muted Vivienne Westwood-style basques.
Soaring string music is employed to good effect to introduce the brief romantic exchanges, adding resonance to the moving ‘On such a night’ dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo as they wait for Bassanio’s return to Belmont. The final added scene of Jessica performing an act of worship alone, whether symbolising endurance of faith or the promise of continuing conflict provides a thought-provoking conclusion to yet another superb production at this South London venue.