February 25, 2002


The Merchant of Venice

reviewed by
Lynn Trenning























For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

For more information about the Royal Shakespeare Company at Davidson College, please visit RSC at Davidson.

(aired 2/28/02 on WFAE)

There is nothing more troubling than anti-Semitism as entertainment. This is the difficulty with The Merchant of Venice, a play riddled with religious intolerance, and at the same time strikingly juxtaposed with rollicking comedy and ridiculous quests for love. This play has not aged well, and the Royal Shakespeare Company doesn’t gloss over that. While I question the choice of material, the Royal Shakespeare Company proves its mettle with this straight forward touring production of a difficult play.

Set to travel to Japan, Malaysia, Beijing and Shanghai, The Merchant of Venice makes its only American stop at Davidson College, where the Royal Shakespeare Company is in residency for 12 hectic days that include free workshops, panel discussions, lectures and performances. It was the premiere performance for Davidson’s magnificent new Duke Family Performance Hall, a theatrical gift to the region. The place is gorgeous, and my seat would have been perfect, if I could have found the button to lower the orchestra pit in front of me, where four rows of chairs were set up for this special event. Director Loveday Ingram and designer Colin Falconer transported the audience seamlessly between commerce driven Venice, and the luxuriously removed world of Belmont. The details were marvelous, from minute sound cues to a set shaped like a Rubic’s cube. It was stark, dramatic, and a celebration of symmetry and the magic of reflective light.

In Venice, Bassanio is stricken with desire to win the hand of the heiress Portia, whose father has arranged for her to be won in marriage by means of a game closely related to "Let’s Make A Deal." Bassanio, played with puppy-like eagerness by Paul Hickey, convinces his friend Antonio to lend him money for the journey to Belmont. Shylock, a money-lending Jew, agrees to lend Antonio the money in return for a pound of flesh, a deal that eventually comes to fruition.

Hermione Gulliford played Portia with a cool grace, sardonic wit, and an endearing bawdy edge. Two actors with relatively small roles stole the show. Darren Tunstall provided manic comic relief as the raucous buffoon Launcelot. Chris Jarman dominated the stage with his mesmerizing performance as the Prince of Morocco, one of Portia’s worldly suitors.

Ian Bartholomew mined the complexities of the much-scorned Shylock. If you are sympathetic to the plight of Jews within the context of this time, surely Shylock is a sympathetic character. If you believe that all Jews are abhorrent, then surely Shylock is the most despicable of them. What is so disarming is Shakespeare’s brilliantly nuanced insight into the pain of the Jew. "Hath not a Jew eyes?" Shylock asks those who hate him. "If you prick us do we not bleed?" This production reveals the sensuous side of Shylock’s religion. Prayers and ritual are artfully employed to identify Shylock as not just The Jew, but Jewish.

The themes dramatized in The Merchant of Venice are alive today, though often cloaked under the deceptive wrap of political correctness. If you can shell out sixty bucks for a ticket, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production is an honest rendition of a play that has provided the western world with one of its most defining stereotypes.

Lynn Trenning, February 25, 2002

[ArtSavant link]
© 2000 - 2001 ArtSavant - enquiries to info@artsavant.com