In London recently we saw the Almeida Theatre’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. Concerned that I hadn’t seen it before, I set out to watch the film version with Pacino and Irons first – half way through there was a hitch in reception and I was happy to abandon the exercise as by then it was clear that this was a straightforward exercise by Shakespeare, background research not needed.
Imagine my surprise, those of you who might also have watched the first half of Pacino’s Shylock and Iron’s Antonio, to discover that this is a comedy. The production in Islington was in a long line of productions that serve to demonstrate the incredible robustness of Shakespeare’s work. It is set in Las Vegas, complete with an Elvis look-a-like performing Elvis songs. Portia is a southern belle, an absolutely hilarious performance with, as the play demands, the capacity to wear an entirely different hat as well. The language works, the plot works, Shakespeare is a master like no other. I imagine he would have loved what was done to his play on this occasion.
Over the years, this particular play has been made in every possible way. It’s been done by the Nazis and it’s been done by directors utterly sympathetic to the idea that Shakespeare’s play is far more profound than the facile treatment accorded it by the anti-Semitic Germans. The performance we saw had comedic effect where the film had none, but still took the view that Shakespeare was as critical of the anti-Semites as he was of Shylock. Given the historical circumstance of the play’s creation, one needs little convincing that this is the case and the play is able to tell this story.
As a comedy, this should have a happy ending, but at the Almeida we saw a brilliantly ambiguous ending in which nobody was happy and nobody seemed to know why. ‘Know thyself’? These people didn’t have a clue and in that, it had a modern message for the dis-ease rich white people have without really wanting to know why. It’s a play whose message is as apt now as it ever was. I’d love to see it again.