There are perhaps two strategies for staging The Merchant of Venice. One can either deliver the play straight, boldly denying the ostensible anti-Semitism at the heart of Shylocks portrayal; otherwise, one can focus on the slither of ambiguity woven into his key speeches. Bruce Jamieson has hedged his bets, and instead picks from both at the Greenwich Playhouse.
Its easy to understand the directors act of accommodation. Moral relativism has its limits, and its application here is more problematic than with, say, the archaic patriarchy of The Taming of the Shrew. But then again, a relentlessly apologetic manner can risk dramatic anaemia the work explaining and justifying itself away to nothing.
As Shylock, Al Fiorentini bears the responsibility for reconciling these contradictory impulses. The veteran actor doesnt disappoint.
Fiorentini is obstinate and demanding without yielding to automata; he is frail and injured, but not to the extent that he can act with impunity. Fiorentinis performance is pitch-perfect, refusing to assume his place in the Bards parade of stereotypes. In the process he wriggles-out a little breathing space for his colleagues.
There are some other memorable performances out there too in particular Thomas and Chate as Portia and Nerissa respectively but its something of an irony that the dead space we usually associate with prejudice and pigeonholing is here the most abundant source of life.
This is possibly a failure of comedy. Surely only pantomime is as formulaic and functionary as this narrative-form and one can readily imagine Shakespeare knocking-out three or four in an afternoon. It is a great tribute to the team that proceedings are imbued with a certain freshness and directness. The play retains its nasty, sinister edge to the end.
Well, close to the end. Merchant instead closes with Jessica, who has already promised to renounce her Jewish faith, reaching for the siddur in thanksgiving. Whilst this may be understood as a reassertion of Jewish dignity we have, after all, just seen her father brutally forced to convert to Christianity it openly contradicts the text, and thus externalises itself as a remainder, an unnecessary appendage.
Its the one moment where the performance lacks resolve, the one unabashed apology. It threatens to subvert our quest for understanding it offers us a way out of the confrontation. It is a poison administered alongside its antidote; an examination bereft of questions.
But the production is otherwise very finely balanced, and represents an evening well spent. The Playhouse deserves to sell every seat. Judging by the box-office queues, theyre not that far off.