The Arcolas new production of The Merchant of Venice manages an astounding theatrical feat: to make the paying audience feel guilty that they stepped through the doors.
That this is one of Shakespeares less comfortable plays is well-established: its portrayal of Shylock as solidly inhabiting every conceivable Jewish stereotype is disquieting. It has almost become the fashion to accuse the playwright of penning a sort of violent anti-Jewish treatise, instead of making use of an easily-recognised type to dramatic effect.
I do not pretend that Shylock strikes me as one of Shakespeares subtlest creations, though his anguished loss of family and fortune is moving. But to dismiss the play as anti-Semitic is a little like dismissing Hamlet as unpleasantly misogynistic, because Ophelia is a fragile young thing, girlishly in love, and prone bouts of madness that look suspiciously like PMT.
Julia Pascal has chosen to side-step her own squeamishness by beginning the play in modern Venice, where Sarah, an elderly tourist, waits for her tour guide. There follows in interlude so astonishingly crass I barely believed my ears: Sarah, it appears, is Jewish. As a child she suffered in the Warsaw ghetto; her father was lost to Treblinka. At this point a dozen actors rush onstage, and the tour guide explains that they are to rehearse their production of The Merchant of Venice.
It is a desperately heavy-handed device. Leaving aside the implication that it would not be acceptable for us to watch the play, but that we can watch someone else watching it, the mention of Warsaw and Treblinka within three minutes of lights-up is staggeringly ill-conceived. The casual use of names associated with one of the most desperate periods of human suffering in order to remind us how naughty it would be to take Shakespeares word for it, so far as Jewish money-lenders are concerned, is quite chillingly calculated.
Once the play begins, it is Paul Herzberg as Shylock who proves conclusively how the play should be approached: not with tricks of direction, but with fine acting of the most grave and compelling kind. In his hands, Shylock becomes not a gross stereotype, but a real and conflicted thing: wrestling with the implications of his religion and profession; furious with his treatment at the hands of Christians; and a too-fond too-stern father.
Miranda Pleasance as Portia is quite competent, managing to convey the characters youth and playfulness, as well as her wisdom. Roderick Smith makes a poignant Antonio, standing surety for a young man he loves. Jodie Taibi as Jessica is a pleasure, with a charming stage presence.
But there are significant problems throughout the production. Given Pascals apparently extreme distaste for stereotyping of any kind, it was baffling to see Antonio generally accepted to be Shakespeares sympathetic portrayal of a gay man kitted out like Quentin Crisp taking a morning stroll down Old Compton Street. Portias African suitor is a jazz-singing finger-snapping Harlem type, and her Spanish suitor wears an insulting Latino moustache and plays the guitar badly.
As a whole, the production is a stranger to subtlety: at one stage three lesser characters hold up planks of wood and bang them together, just as Portia hears banging at the gate. There are interludes in which the youngest and best-looking members of the cast, stripped to sports bras and thermal long-johns, take part in quasi-sexual game-playing, which go on for far too long, and do nothing but heartily confuse the audience.
Pascal has written additional dialogue to enable the actors rehearsing the play to engage now and then with Sarah, and to flesh out the character of Jessica. The new dialogue is not of especially poor quality, but suffers as it rightly should when set beside some of the most grand writing in all literature. I cannot think why anyone would presume to do this, and it is intensely disconcerting: one moment Shylock is grandly rolling out lines fit to raise every hair on the back of your neck; the next he is idly chatting to his daughter about whether putting lemon-juice on her hair will lighten it.
I do not recall having ever been so infuriated by a production of Shakespeare. Merchant is dramatically intensely satisfying: the final scene in which we cannot see how Antonio can escape the knife will bring anyone to the edge of their seat. The shame of this production is that the sheer pleasure of a good tale well told is lost in a welter of hand-wringing. I only hope there were no members of the audience new to Shakespeare: they can only have had their worst fears confirmed.