The Merchant of Venice is not only one of Shakespeare’s most popular works, but also one of the most problematic and fiercely debated by modern audiences. It may have been labelled a comedy in the First Folio, but the sinister nature of the play’s apparent anti-Semitism, and its use over the decades to bolster this line of propaganda, often make for dark and unsettling productions.
Poetic Justice has taken the decision to cut out many of the “lovey-dovey” parts of the play (in the words of actor Ashley Gunstock, when we chatted post-show) and to strip back the text to its more unsettling themes. Yet for the first half of the performance, uncomfortable scenes of prejudice between Shylock (Gunstock), Antonio (Joe Shefer) and Bassanio (Saul Matlock) are played out with apparently little thought for the complications behind this narrative. Of course, there’s more than one theme in this play – since when is Shakespeare ever that simple? – and the company do good work playing with ideas of greed, materialism and the homoerotic overtones of Bassanio and Antonio’s relationship. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that, particularly in an adaptation set in the twenty-first century, it is impossible not to acknowledge the themes of religious and cultural intolerance that are undeniably present.
However, as the play proceeds, the company not only tightens their focus on the play’s potential issues, but steps the emotional and dramatic tension up by several notches. After the elopement of Jessica (a wonderfully versatile Lisa Sheerin) and Lorenzo (a charming and at times adorable Josh Jewkes), something appears to snap inside Gunstock’s Shylock. His portrayal becomes heart-wrenchingly sympathetic, spitting out bitterness at a world that has never treated him fairly, and his rendering of ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ is as compelling as I’ve seen it.
By contrast, Shefer’s cleverly-played Antonio is far from the isolated, pitiable figure that he sometimes appears. This merchant is unrelenting and vicious in exacting Shylock’s punishment, eliminating the audience’s sympathies for him by the final scene. It’s almost shocking in the extremity of its role reversal, but powerful: far from a celebratory conversion and redemption, Shylock’s enforced baptism into the Christian faith, not often seen on stage, leaves him broken and wretched on the ground – a well-conceived and commanding final tableau that allows Gunstock to shine once again.
The confusing element of this production is the way in which it has been presented and advertised. The marketing suggests it is a work devised and inspired by the Shakespearean text, and the change of title certainly implies a new play; yet really, this is a shortened production of The Merchant of Venice, set in the modern day. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this – in a deluge of Shakespearean productions and adaptations, this is no doubt one of the better ones. The plot fits neatly into the modern world of iPhones and corporate greed – as the RSC proved with their own modernisation, in Rupert Goold’s 2011 Las Vegas-located production – and the company does not need to put such a spin on their marketing as to shy away from the original play itself.
Although it takes a little while to come into its own, this is a strong production with clear vision and an impressive central performance, which certainly deserves a bigger audience in the performances to come.
The Trial of the Jew Shylock is playing at the Rosemary Branch Theatre until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Rosemary Branch Theatre website.