Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shakespeare’s “Merchant”

On our third day at The Stratford Festival, we attended a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice”.

The performance we attended was, in effect, a preview performance; the production was not to have an official opening for another week.

“The Merchant Of Venice” had originally been scheduled for a July opening, but The Stratford Festival had postponed the opening until mid-August—a sure sign of production troubles. When we had acquired our tickets in June, we had acquired tickets for a performance during the official run; we were, in consequence, disappointed that we ended up being handed a preview performance.

I thought the production, on the whole, was a good one. It was certainly the finest “Merchant Of Venice” I have ever encountered.

At its center was a great Shylock, Canadian actor Scott Wentworth, who gave a riveting performance. Wentworth played Shylock as a wounded man, withdrawn from society—and, as a result, lacking some measure of self-awareness—because of society’s mistreatment of a religious minority. Wentworth’s interpretation was an interesting one, well-considered and well-played, and it worked in terms of the production.

The director, Antoni Cimolino, set the play in the late 1930s, a time at which Benito Mussolini was at the height of his power—and a time at which Mussolini first introduced anti-Jewish legislation, a fall-out of Italy’s new alliance with Germany. Until Mussolini began currying favor with Hitler, Italy had never contemplated an anti-Jewish agenda—but, from 1938 on, Italy adopted much of the same anti-Jewish legal framework that had been employed in Germany since 1933.

In Cimolino’s staging, there was much taunting of Shylock by children and policemen. Most characters in the play treated Shylock with open contempt (including Portia, which was a major error). Shylock’s daughter sought marriage not for love but in order to find refuge within Gentile society. Shylock, in response to these changing circumstances, retreated within himself and became a remote, isolated figure.

I found Cimolino’s interpretation of the play intriguing—although I can well understand why others were put off.

In many ways, Cimolino had offered a one-dimensional “Merchant Of Venice”. Many of Shylock’s lines had been excised—all unpleasant self-examination, all negative character revelations, all admissions against interest had been cut from the playing text—with the result that Shylock became more acted-upon than actor in his own fate. Cimolino’s interpretation unbalanced the play, and robbed it of much of its richness and complexity. Shylock, after all, was not written as an admirable character; one of Shakespeare’s themes was that even an odious man must be accorded a measure of dignity and respect. Pruning the text in order to turn Shylock into an innocent Holocaust victim, waiting to be sent to the camps, involved a serious rewriting of Shakespeare.

The supporting cast was very, very poor. The Portia was dreadful—all the women onstage were dreadful—although the Portia managed to offer a passable courtroom scene. In that respect, the Portia reminded me of a soprano that marks time in a Donizetti opera until springing to life in the mad scene. A couple of the male actors grossly overplayed their parts, to ridiculous excess; the rest were borderline competent.

Yet with a great Shylock at the center of the play, none of this made any difference. Wentworth’s Shylock single-handedly carried the production, and rendered everything else irrelevant.

A pastiche 1930s movie score had been composed for the production. Audio clips of Hitler speeches and Mussolini speeches played in the background—until, at the end of the play, such speeches played in the foreground.

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