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Merchant of Venice - Stratford


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#1 tsaurus

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Posted 25 March 2007 - 08:26 AM

Went to see the current American production of 'Merchant of Venice' in Stratford last night and thought I'd share some of my thoughts on a good production with a great Shylock .....

‘Merchant’ is one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously difficult ‘comedies’.  Modern sensibilities (and dare I suggest political correctness) have forced many productions of this play into looking like a tragedy embedded in a rather unlikely and twee RomCom:  Portray the Christians in the play as ‘baddies’ and Shylock as a hapless victim and you can just about make it palatable.  However, that solution is too simple and the production currently playing at Stratford’s Swan Theatre proves it with a production where all of the characters are portrayed in shades of grey as varied as the business suits they sport, rather than black and white.

F. Murray Abraham’s Shylock is a great performance – completely focused and nuanced – but what raises it from the rank of the good to the great is the courage to address the ambiguity of the character.  In recent years there has been such a backlash against the notion of shylock as a villain, that he has tended to be played for sympathy – Shylock as victim.  Mr Abraham reminds us that such a one-dimensional version of Shylock undersells the character as surely as playing him as villain.  In real life people don’t easily fall into the simplistic categories of hero and villain – Shakespeare understood this and Mr Abraham has the courage to play it that way – this is a Shylock both sinned against and sinning.

The production sits easily in its modern dress, hi-tech financial setting and seemed less anachronistic than many modernized versions of Shakespeare.  The darkness was counterbalanced with some brilliant comic touches.  Much of the laughter came from the character of Balthazar (Portia’s servant) who had almost no lines but was an object-lesson in how a good actor can stand out even when he has nothing to say.

It wasn’t a perfect production – some of the characters, notably Jessica and Gobbo, changed too dramatically for my liking.  Actually, Gobbo’s transition may have been easier to follow had they not chosen to cut the Old/Young Gobbo scene from the play.  Also I found some of the acting a little over emphatic for my tastes with an unfortunate tendency to ‘choreograph’ every line.  And I wasn’t entirely sure how we were meant to read the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo – they seemed a very unlikely pairing to me (any suggestions?)  

However, on balance, it was a fine production that was contemporary, clear and (thankfully) ambiguous.  For once we got a Shylock who was neither hero nor villain in a production that was neither comedy or tragedy.

Anyone else seen it yet and have any thoughts ?


#2 Welthorpe

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Posted 26 March 2007 - 03:52 PM

Totally agree with almost everything you say about it. I thought F Murray Abraham's Shylock was terrific - and so nice to see one that doesn't portray Shylock as Topol on downers! His extremes stemmed from the loss of his daughter and he cut a sad figure trying to get a break in whaterver misguided way he could. He made him a truly human character.

I enjoyed the production very much - by FAR the best of the US visitors to Stratford this year - though that's not saying a great deal in truth. Balthazar was terrifically played and I thought Nerissa was one of the strongest I've seen in that role too. So often the scenes in Portia's world can seem dull in comparisson with the business in the rialto, but not here.

But I too felt that the early Gobbo was more believeable that the latter, and Jessica was a bit lost and the final relationship with Lorenzo didn't look the best in the world. Perhaps their take was that for the couple withough the "test" they have their own problems. I don't know. I thought the modernisations worked superbly. Hope to see LFANA back in Stratford again soon though. This is their second excellent visit.

#3 tsaurus

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Posted 27 March 2007 - 10:49 AM

I didn't realise they'd visited before - what did they bring last time?  I was rather hoping that they would bring Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta' which they were doing in rep with 'Merchant' in the US.  It would have been very interesting to see the two plays side by side.

#4 Lynette

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Posted 28 March 2007 - 11:16 PM

Welthorpe, sadly I will miss the Merchant but did you see Love's Labour's Lost by the Washington Shakespeare theatre Co. It was very very good, funny and clear and right on the money I thought.

#5 Welthorpe

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 10:58 AM

QUOTE(tsaurus @ Mar 27 2007, 11:49 AM) View Post
I didn't realise they'd visited before - what did they bring last time?  I was rather hoping that they would bring Marlowe's 'Jew of Malta' which they were doing in rep with 'Merchant' in the US.  It would have been very interesting to see the two plays side by side.

They did Cymbeline at TOP in 2001

#6 Welthorpe

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Posted 02 April 2007 - 11:03 AM

QUOTE(Lynette @ Mar 29 2007, 12:16 AM) View Post
Welthorpe, sadly I will miss the Merchant but did you see Love's Labour's Lost by the Washington Shakespeare theatre Co. It was very very good, funny and clear and right on the money I thought.

Yes, Lynette, I did see it. For me, it would have been vastly improved as a concept if only the songs had been put to music that was more consistent with the era. I agree it was fun, and certainly not bad (the Henry ivs on the other had were pretty dire - horribly "theatrical" and shouted). I was very impressed by Merchant though - the concept worked totally and F Murray Abraham was superb. Sorry you missed it - I think you would have enjoyed it.




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