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‘And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine’

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Jay Prosser reviews The Merchant of Venice on BBC iPlayer.

Watching the BBC iPlayer’s screening of The Merchant of Venice, Culture in Quarantine: Shakespeare on the BBC iPlayer in the age of COVID makes for a surreal experience, either like time-travelling or being dropped onto a different planet. It’s not only because this recording is from 2015, of the Royal Shakespeare Company directed under Polly Findlay. Nor is it the usual post-C/ante-C jolt of disbelief at seeing actors and audience crammed together, no social distancing in view, and all those theatrical aerosols. 

There are lots of masks on stage at one point, a masque being the way that Shylock is tricked out of his daughter and part of his wealth. The fool and initially Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo, plonks himself in the audience and engages in an aggressive face-on-face monologue with one unfortunate member in the front row.  There’s also the full-on snogging between Antonio and Bassanio. More on that later. 

Above all, though, there’s the spitting at Shylock by Antonio: the eponymous merchant of Venice. But it’s not only the protagonist who directs venom at his Jewish antagonist. All the good Christian men of Venice spit every time they take Shylock off or on. It gives a corporeal reality to the expression about spewing hatred. Gobbo indeed. All of this ‘rheum’ , as Shylock calls it, is more shocking to watch now when spitting can kill and – if accompanied with the threat of coronavirus infection — is considered a criminal act.

So, this is a performance that startlingly heightens the antisemitism of Shakespeare’s complex play. Characters can’t even say ‘Jew’ without gagging and the word getting stuck in their craw. We are made to see that the play is powerfully about hate and racism not only against Jews but also the (Muslim) Moor who comes courting Portia. This is a world in which Christianity rules and all others are alien.   

A clever twist, made much of at the time of this production, is that Shylock is played by the Israeli Arab/Palestinian actor Makram J. Khoury. I’m not sure what’s meant by this exchange.That the position of the Jew can be occupied by anyone? That all aliens (a word that appears in the play and makes clear the legal noncitizen status of Jews in Venice) are hated? But it’s undoubtedly interesting. The substitution is not colour-blind casting but rather ethnicity-/ religion-conscious choreography that gets you thinking.   

Khoury is a brilliant Shylock: noble, determined to seek judgement and his bond. He is not at all fawning, even at the end. He is more swallowed up in the darkness of this Christian world than truly accepting defeat.

The fawning, detestable characters are in fact the others. Antonio (that ‘fawning publican,’ as Shylock says), as played by Jamie Ballard, is so hysterical and on the edge with his anti-Semitism and reckless gambling that he makes you dread his every entry. His friend, or in this version which queers their friendship, his lover, Bassanio, is a real dish in the form of Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. But he’s similarly nasty, manipulative of his old male love and his new wife, Portia.   

Portia played by the much-acclaimed Patsy Ferran starts out sweet enough, but she too ensures systemic antisemitism. In the guise of the lawyer Balthazar, she coldly and mechanically disenfranchises Shylock – just like the others. Ferran’s transformation makes for a brilliant performance. 

The sense of institutionalised hatred is helped by the staging. The backdrop is a mirror, which in a theatre would reflect the audience.  It’s lost on television, of course. But while making us see ourselves in the scenes of anti-Semitism and hatred on stage would be a bit obvious, refracted onto a screen the mirror becomes an opaque wall. Apparently high on all sides, it makes the sense of enclosure, entrapment, at work in this divisive play more powerful. The setting in fact looks like the Ghetto in Venice, which, of course, is the world of Shakespeare’s play. 

The production is also distinguished by choral music, with choristers punctuating scenes from high up on the wall/mirror. The musical interludes offer no relief but rather with their austere and ethereal feel give the sense of a religion, a church, that oversees coldly from on high. The music made me think of the Inquisition, which of course is not a million miles from the play either, in terms of place or time.

The play’s constant presence and dominant performance is in fact played by something inanimate. This is a large metal ball on a pendulum swing that Portia sets in motion on her first entrance to the stage. It could signify chance, fate, or a ticking clock – as character after character makes bets, gives bonds, breaks them, and plays their parts like puppets. As Antonio says at the beginning of the play, this is the world as ‘A stage where every man must play a part’. 

Khoury’s Shylock is the only one who comes across as self-determined, consistent — though of course he too fails, overpowered by the system. The darkness of this play is absolutely right, and this is a staging for our dark, divisive, racist and pandemic times.

And in spite of all that spitting, seeing it on iPlayer means you won’t even need a face mask to watch it.

[Cover image: Makram J. Khoury as Shylock, with Jamie Ballard as Antonio and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bassanio.

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Jay Prosser is working on a book about his Asian-Jewish family. He is reader in humanities at the University of Leeds.
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