Venice of the North

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Heather Neill previews a Shylock from Halifax.

The Merchant of Venice. By William Shakespeare. Northern Broadsides

Northern Broadsides Theatre Company, based at the atmospheric converted carpet factory at Dean Clough in Halifax, is famous for speaking Shakespeare in the accents of northern England. Director Barrie Rutter is also playing Shylock in this production. Will he be giving him a different accent to underline his status as an outsider in Venetian society? "Yes, I'll be giving him a middle European accent," he says, " but he's only in five scenes, you know. It's Portia's play. Shylock is not the merchant of the title as many people think. He wouldn't have been allowed; that is Antonio."

Portia, despite being "the richest person on stage" is herself a victim of her father's decision to bequeath her the husband who opens the lead casket, whether she likes him or not. Her first two suitors, both foreigners, Rutter admits, are the object of mirth, although there is a sadness in their decision to gamble for Portia's hand: "they have sworn an oath that they will not have dynasties if they fail."

Portia is very anxious that Bassanio might make the wrong choice, but, says Rutter, it is part of the fairy tale story that he should choose correctly:

"The play is essentially a romantic comedy." Money is, of course, a theme.

When Jessica runs away with her Christian lover, taking Shylock's cash, he seems divided as to whether he is more upset about losing his ducats or his daughter. Venice is a rich centre of trade, but only Jews are allowed to be moneylenders. "So", says Rutter, "at the end they rob Shylock of his job as well."

To modern audiences the enforced conversion of Shylock to Christianity when he has lost his case against Antonio can seem the cruellest punishment, but despite the fact that he may struggle to earn a living in future, this is, says Rutter a modern response: " It didn't seem cruel to them. It was a very Christian world."

This "awful mercy" links with the other great theme, most famously exemplified in Portia"s speech, "The quality of mercy is not strained", although there are earlier hints in speeches by the Duke and Portia herself. As Rutter puts it: "Shakespeare always sends you telegrams, but then takes you by surprise."

The central plot device - the calling in by Shylock of his bond, a pound of Antonio's flesh - is intended to be a merry matter and is referred to as such more than once. "Neither party", says Rutter, "thinks the bond is ever going to be called for."

On tour until May 29 at Glasgow, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Greenwich, Liverpool, Leeds, Buxton, Salford, Bury St Edmunds, Ollerton, Richmond (Yorks), Cheltenham

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