Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor and Director: Bill Alexander
Bill Alexander promotes his production of the play as an adaptation, hence it’s A (rather than The) Merchant of Venice. His stated aim is to focus on its “inner core”. The programme cover shows a graffitied urban wall. So far, so edgy.
It’s therefore a disappointment when the performance opens to some inoffensive classical music and the cast speaking Shakespeare and nothing but Shakespeare. They stride around the stage and position themselves in opposing corners to address one another. You can’t criticise their enunciation: their clarity is commendable. But the decision to have them all talk in heightened RP, like BBC announcers from the olden days, is alienating and inexplicable. Shakespeare’s script is only “adapted” in the sense that most of the play’s comic characters have been stripped out. Nobody doubles up, so we are left with the six actors playing six parts: Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Gratiano, and, for some reason, a composite of the unmemorable young men, Salarino and Solanio.
What is lost? Removing Shylock’s daughter Jessica, for example, and her Christian lover Lorenzo, flattens Shylock’s grief at their reported elopement. His twin lament for his ducats and his daughter may seem comic, but it should be set against the scene in which we witness Jessica’s gleefully greedy fleecing of her father.
Other characters to have disappeared include Portia’s maid, Nerissa and her two unsuccessful suitors, Arragon and Morocco, thus emasculating the drama of the casket scenes. Shylock still makes the cut, obviously. But it is hard to find any sympathy for Peter Tate’s presentation of this key figure when he is not shown surrounded by the play’s crowd of young, wealthly, white Venetians with their sense of entitlement and pointed racism. The real interest in the character of Bassanio is his slipperiness. When the action starts, he has already worked his way through generous handouts from Antonio. Now he uses a shameless metaphor about shooting another arrow after the one he’s already lost to touch Antonio for a really substantial amount. This, of course, sets in motion the central plot about borrowing money and a bond with a particularly cruel penalty clause.
From then on Alexander Knox is reduced to playing Bassanio as no more than a good-natured matinee idol. Lena Robin as Portia is similiarly robbed of the lines and context that might give depth to her character. She loses the scene in which she and Nerissa weigh up potential lovers. Their racial stereotyping may not be politically correct, but this can emphasize the overall complacency of the play’s younger characters.
Making Antonio an older man makes considerable sense, and John McAndrew brings out the suggestions of his unrequited love for Bassanio. But turning his cheerful young friends, Salarino and Solanio, into an older woman (Mary Chater), who in her turn suffers from unrequited love, simply adds to the overly solemn and joyless feel of the production. Alex Wilson as Gratiano alone shows spark. But without Nerissa as his love interest, there is no comic counterpointing to the play’s other sets of lovers. The light relief of the final act with its parallel ring-giving is therefore muted.
The modernising, as far as it goes, amounts to little more than the characters using mobile phones. It is a weary trope and one that is undermined by the simultaneous use of old-fashioned letters when the script demands them. This is one instance among many where Bill Alexander’s direction is unimaginative. To make Portia scroll through phone profiles of lovers and run round the stage showing them to the audience becomes more embarrassing the longer it goes on. More significantly, this production gives no sense of its stance on the play’s issues. The comedy of Shakespeare’s original, with its pairings and echoings, serves to interrogate the heartlessness of the society – Christian and Jewish – in which it is set. Bill Alexander removes more than a pound of the play’s flesh. He takes out its heart.
Runs until 4 December 2021