Hurt with the same weapons

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Raymond Ross reviews an honest new production of The Merchant of Venice. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE By William Shakespeare Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until November 30

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice might as easily have been entitled The Jew of Venice. For it is on Shylock's character that most of our interest is centred - perhaps especially so in these days of political correctness - and it is his desire for revenge that gives the drama its tension.

This is most noticeable in Act V, after the trial scene in which Shylock claims his "pound of flesh", when, without his presence, the play merely drifts amiably to its conclusion - though Kenny Ireland's new production has Shylock's daughter Jessica raise the bitter question of her father's humiliation in a closing cri de coeur that is both fitting and effective.

Part of the trouble with The Merchant is that most of the male characters lack the light and shade that so colours Shylock. If this is as true of the Lyceum production as of any another, it is at least blessed with a vigorous, fiery and not unsympathetic Shylock pitched to near perfection by the stalwart Tom McGovern.

Anyone who saw McGovern's excellent portrayal of Hamlet at the Lyceum last year will not be disappointed. This is a superb performance that gives real cutting edge to the drama. And, of course, the power of his characterisation helps foreground the perennial question - is the play anti-semitic?

The Lyceum obviously thinks not, and says so in the programme: the director even went to the trouble of bringing a rabbi into rehearsals. On this one, it is make-your-mind-up time for the audience, and this honest production doesn't skirt the issues.

We see Shylock hounded as a "dog" by the Venetian Christians, spat at and reviled, and we can understand his compulsion for a bloody, inhuman revenge. But he has nobility too, especially in his language and bearing, that lifts him well above being a stock character.

On the other hand, Shakespeare was no saint (as he was no slouch at playing to the gallery when it suited) and to deny the anti-semitism absolutely would be to fly in the face of human imperfection and the cultural precepts of the "Christian" civilisation of his time.

The production marries the revenge and fairy-tale motifs well, with Emily Mortimer's Portia veering nicely between the passive entrapment of an obedient Christian daughter (in contrast to Jessica's "heathen" behaviour) and a spirited indulgence in comic irony that sometimes threatens to become Absolutely Fabulous.

Ireland doesn't miss the opportunity for comedy that the text allows, and Tony Cownie's cameo role as Launcelot Gobbo is a wee gem that sparkles well beyond the final curtain.

Higher classes studying The Merchant of Venice will certainly benefit from this production. It is thoughtful and accessible and has moments of real power. It is also excellently designed and visually pleasing. And it beats the hell out of trying to memorise soliloquies.

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