Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Polly Findlay
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is such a tricky play, filled with prejudice and persecution, that makes it difficult to watch in the twenty-first century. It is a story containing few characters the audience can really admire, men avidly pursue money, they rate friendship above their wives and unsparingly choose vengeance when enemies cross them. Yet Polly Findlay’s 2015 production, added to the BBC iPlayer as part of the Culture in Quarantine series, instead makes a virtue of the characters’ many faults with an unflinching look at the selfishness of humanity.
Wealthy merchant Antonio acts as guarantor for his friend Bassanio, taking out a loan from his old Jewish enemy Shylock. When Bassanio leaves to pursue the wealthy Portia, Antonio’s cargo is lost at sea and his business ruined. Unable to pay his debt, Shylock returns to legally enforce the contract they made, but in the meantime his own daughter has absconded with her lover Lorenzo and Shylock’s money.
This Royal Shakespeare Company production received lukewarm reviews when it opened in 2015, but it comes alive on screen as a portrait of merciless masculinity in a cold and unforgiving society that prizes wealth above decency. The stage is covered in burnished gold mirrors, designed by Johannes Schütz, in which the seated audience can meaningfully see themselves, and on camera we clearly note the reference to the outward and misleading beauty of the caskets that reflects the emptiness of these characters. An orb-like pendulum swings endlessly back and forth, marking not just the importance of time in the play, but also the timelessness of its themes.
The real surprise is to convincingly transform Antonio (Jamie Ballard) and Bassanio (Jacob Fortune Lloyd) into lovers, eagerly kissing in caressing close-up during the play’s first scene and making sense of Antonio’s determination to support his partner. When Bassanio takes Shylock’s money and uses it to woo Portia, you wonder if Findlay has perhaps backed her interpretation into a corner, but the fervency of the men’s feeling for one another re-emerges in the courtroom scene, observed by Portia in disguise, and gives her a solid reason to test his fidelity, ending this bleak interpretation on a note of uncertainty for the future.
Makram J. Khoury’s Shylock will make you wince at his pain as disrespectful youngsters spit in his face or when he recounts Antonio’s cruel jibes about his business practices, but his lengthy final scene is also a fascinating character-study in which Khoury’s performance asks the audience to consider how justified his anger has been and whether the subsequent revenge visited upon him is truly deserved.
One thing is clear from this production; the women of the story are poorly served by menfolk they do not deserve. Patsy Ferran’s eager Portia has more sense than any of them, her charisma and intelligence leaping from the screen and you know Bassanio will not be easily forgiven for his transgressions. Her maid Nerissa (Nadia Albina) is equally strong-willed, while Scarlett Brooks as Jessica comes to rue her decision to elope with Lorenzo who clearly prefers her money and a possible inheritance over her love.
The Merchant of Venice is a tricky play, but Findlay ensures that none of the male characters escape censure or ultimately profit from their actions, even Antonio himself who may have won back his life has perhaps lost his closest ally. Shakespeare’s story is a treatise on the ‘quality of mercy’ and, when we finally emerge from quarantine, this engagingly filmed production should perhaps stand as a warning to us all to be a little kinder in our new world.
Streaming here until August 2020