Polly Findlay’s production of The Merchant Of Venice at the RSC was conceived and created in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and the rising tide of racial and religious intolerance in Europe gives the play a relevance which was absent four years ago when Rupert Goold set the RSC’s previous production in Las Vegas.
Findlay’s production is social comment, not social realism. Johannes Schutz’s set is a vast mirror in which we see ourselves in a through-the-looking-glass world – the programme references Charles Dodgson – dominated by a huge pendulum which is set in motion at the start of the play and continues to swing all evening symbolising, what? That for every action there is an opposite reaction? That stillness and balance will come eventually if you wait long enough?
As we enter the theatre the actors are sitting on benches at either side of the stage and they adopt their roles in the play when it’s their turn to speak. Antonio stands centre stage, waiting for us to settle and he addresses his first line, ‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad’, directly to the audience before Solanio and Salario, played here as identical Tweedledum and Tweedledee figures, stand and join him. The homosexual subtext between Antonio and Bassanio is made explicit in the first few minutes and provides the first example of discrimination which places the anti-Semitism suffered by Shylock in context. We know from the start that Bassanio plans to court Portia for her money while his real, and secret, love is Antonio.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Nerissa is played by Nadia Albina who was born with a short right forearm. So Findlay’s Merchant is about identity; those we choose and those which are given to us, those we can conceal if we have to, like sexuality, and those we can’t even if we wanted to, like disability or ethnicity. The ease with which the cast slip in and out of their roles on stage is juxtaposed with the role assigned to Shylock which he neither chose nor can shed.
Makram J Khoury is an Israeli actor who seems, at first sight, to embody Shylock the Jew but Khoury is not Jewish, he’s a Christian Arab, born into a Palestinian family. There are no visual references to Shylock the Jew, no yarmulke or prayer shawl, Findlay relies on Khoury’s face and accent to make us label him which, of course, we do, just as when we see Nadia Albina we define both her and Nerissa by her arm. Findlay places us in the role of Shakespeare’s Venetians, assigning identities to the actors and their characters based on their physical appearance and then showing us that we were wrong to do so.
English is not Khoury’s first language and this is not the most beautifully spoken Shylock but it works; it feels as if both Khoury and Shylock are finding their way in a potentially hostile environment surrounded by people who will judge them if they get it wrong. The key line in this production is Shylock’s ‘The villainy you teach me, I will execute’ which here refers not only to Shylock’s lack of mercy towards Antonio but also to Antonio’s persecution in homophobic Venice; both are trapped in a cycle of intolerance in which everyone is oppressor and oppressed.
The set is static but functional; it is carpeted in money during the courtroom scene, the root cause of the injustice in the play, and decorated with dozens of candles at the end, an image of hope but also, on the night I saw it, a trip hazard for the actors on stage. Marc Tritschler’s choral score, based on 16th century sources and sung by the cast with supporting off-stage singers and an onstage children’s chorus, is beautiful and haunting. Brian Protheroe is a delightfully scene-stealing Aragon, Tim Samuels’ Launcelot Gobbo is an audience baiting, ad libbing clown (his unhelpful advice to Bassanio ‘it’s the gold one’ brought the house down), Rina Mahoney is a striking and authoritative Duke of Venice and Patsy Ferran’s Portia is boyishly earnest but this is ensemble playing rather than star casting and you’ll go home talking about the ideas more than the performances.