The Canadian Act II (continued . . . again)

I know it is pretty silly to keep titling these reviews "The Canadian Act II (continued)" instead of "Act III" and "Act IV" and so forth. Except that I’ve already seen seven shows this season, and have tickets to see four more, and who would go see an eleven act play? The idea, when I started, was that "Act II" would cover the productions we saw on our second visit, in July, and I’m still working my way through those. Hence, "continued . . . again." When I finally get to reviewing the productions we will see in August, you’ll get "Act III." For those obsessives who are interested in the complete history of my reviews of this season, they are here, here and here.

This season at Stratford has been garnering decidedly mixed reviews, and the Shakespeare in particular has not been getting the kind of adulation that the premier classical repertory in North America should aspire to. Stratford is entering a time of transition, and no one can know what direction the new leadership is going to take. From what I have read, there is a general opinion that Stratford needs to do more to upgrade the quality of the acting in the company, and that the younger members of the cast in particular need to be better schooled in the particular exigencies of classical theater before being pushed out there on the festival stage. I think this opinion is misplaced. I have seen nearly every member of the company do work that I thought was absolutely top-notch, and I think the younger members of the company have demonstrated all the potential to mature into great classical actors. And there is no apprenticeship like being forced to actually perform these roles.

Rather, than the acting, I have long felt that it is the direction at Stratford that needs a bit of shaking up. Robert Cushman, in his glossy coffee table review of Stratford’s first fifty years, quotes current Artistic Director Richard Monette to the effect that Stratford’s artistic leadership has alternated between showmen and intellectuals. Tyrone Guthrie, founding director of the festival, was a showman; he was succeeded by Michael Langham, who was more of an intellectual. Next came Jean Gascon, another showman, followed by Robin Phillips, who was arguably both showman and intellectual, and then by John Hirsch, also a mix, but rather the opposite mix (theatrical where Phillips was intellectual, intellectual where Phillips was theatrical). Then came John Neville, an actor and a showman; David William, not only an intellectual but a scholar; and finally Richard Monette, a former actor, not only a showman but a farceur, the longest-serving artistic director in Stratford’s history, the only one to come up through the company, the most successful financially of all (unless you count Guthrie, who started the whole thing), and whose curtain comes down this year. Monette gave Stratford a vital infusion of theatricality from the beginning, and his tenure has seen some productions that should be remembered for as long as the Festival itself is. But now, nearly a decade and a half on, it is past time, I think, for Stratford to stretch itself, its company and its audience a bit mentally.

Let me be clear: I do not at all advocate a turn to juvenile shock and tittilation, to the obsessive with "transgression" that frequently passes for "cutting edge" or "challenging" theater but that is really the most simple-minded and passe approach that could be imagined. But I do think Stratford needs to experiment more with productions that are more intellectually serious, productions grounded in a sophisticated reading of the text, and that are willing to risk avoiding the simplest choices for connecting with the audience in an effort to connect with them on a higher, or deeper level. Such experiments will, of course, mean box-office as well as artistic risk, as some of them will, inevitably fail. But the risks must be taken, I think, is Stratford is to achieve all it truly can as a company.

Which brings me to what is probably the most reviled production of the season, Richard Rose’s Merchant of Venice


The Merchant is a very tricky play to tackle, both in and of itself and for political reasons. In and of itself because it appears, on its face, to be such a mish-mash. Harold Bloom’s comment, that in "contemporary theatrical terms, Shylock would be an Arthur Miller protagonist displaced into a Cole Porter musical" seems quite apposite on first reading the text. The political reasons, meanwhile, probably do not need delineation: Shylock is a notorious anti-Semitic creation, the most persuasive portrait of the Jew as villain in Western literature; there is a reason that Hitler’s regime produced The Merchant of Venice something like fifty times. A friend of mine once described Merchant as "yes, a comedy – but the joke isn’t funny anymore with Jews in the audience." And that, again, is a very straightforward understanding of the play.

The typical directorial response to these problems since the nineteenth century has been to turn The Merchant of Venice into a tragedy rather than a comedy, with Shylock as the central character. There are two big problems with this choice. First, Shylock is not a tragic hero; he’s a villain. He is far more developed and rounded than Don John of Much Ado, but no less malignant; and for all his puritanical kinship with Malvolio, he is far less sympathetic, bent as he is not merely on self-aggrandizement but murder. His hatred for Antonio is manifest from the very beginning of the play, and the mix of vengefulness and venality is present from the start as well. In Act I Scene iii:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him."

There is no indication at this point that Shylock is bent on violence; more likely, his aim in demanding a pound of flesh is extortionate (holding that bond, he  could demand nearly anything of Antonio and his friends to stay its fatal fulfillment). But what is plain is that hatred and greed are his motivations. There is no greatness of soul to be wasted in Shylock – if he achieves a kind of greatness, it is because circumstances inflate his petty vindictiveness to cosmic dimensions, rather as Lenin and his two-gangsters were by circumstance catapulted to the throne of the Tsars.

Second, as a theatrical matter, giving the play to Shylock makes a good two-thirds of the play seem like so much business to be gotten out of the way so we can get to the trial scene. Who cares, after all, about which lucky bachelor gets to open Portia’s precious box when the tragedy of Shylock is waiting in the wings? As a solution to the imbalance of the play, this approach is really a non-starter.

Modern productions have tended to take an even less credible and more problematic tack. Not only do they make Shylock the hero of a tragedy, they aver that far from being an anti-Semitic play, this is a play about anti-Semitism. Shylock is not really a villain at the start; he merely suffers from social prejudice, and has grown, perhaps, grouchy and untrusting – understandably so after being spat upon daily by every Christian he meets. These productions frequently play up the vulgar anti-Semitism of the Christians, and on the other hand play up Shylock’s dignity and efforts to appear respectable. Stratford did a production of this sort in 2001, which was redeemed by very fine performances in the three key roles (Portia, played by Lucy Peacock; Antonio, played by Peter Hutt; and Shylock, played by Paul Soles); by contrast, the Dustin Hoffman Merchant, another production of this type, which I saw in London in 1989, was almost unwatchably awful. Ron Rosenbaum, in his recent book, The Shakespeare Wars, does a pretty thorough job of eviscerating such productions. I will not recapitulate his entire argument, which I encourage you to read for yourself; his key insight is that all such productions make the play more anti-Semitic, not less. Why? Because, the more respectable Shylock seems, the more decent his essential nature, the more horrifying is his ultimate determination to commit cold-blooded murder in open court – and, hence, the greater the suggestion that inside every Jew, even the most decent and respectable, lurks a murderous monster, who will burst forth if the Jew is pushed too far (or is given opportunity).

Given all this difficulty, why do the play at all? And how to do it, given that, really, we don’t want to be putting on plays about the Jew as eternal enemy?

Some have concluded, with respect to the "why" of the matter, that, in fact, we shouldn’t put on the play anymore. We should read it, yes, but we shouldn’t put it on stage. Others would argue that, for all that it can be criticized from a political perspective, the play is by Shakespeare, has some excellent poetry, beautiful speeches, fine comedy and sharp characterization. Moreover, it is an enormously popular work, and not, I think, because of its anti-Semitism; because, for all that it appears to be an unbalanced mix of in compatible elements, it works extremely well on the stage.

But there is another reason to do the play, and that is that it is a profoundly and complexedly moral play.

Shylock is unequivocally the villain of the piece. The tougher question is who is the hero. Antonio? I don’t think so. Antonio opens the play with a melancholic sigh – "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" – and throughout the play displays a striking doom eagerness. He practically jumps to sign Shylock’s villainous bond and, once caught, manifests no interest in being saved from his grisly fate; all he wants is his beloved Bassanio to be there to see him die. This is the hero of a comedy?

Bassanio? Ah, no. Bassanio is, after Orlando and Romeo, perhaps the winningest of Shakespeare’s shallow and callow young men, certainly more so than the rather wooden Lysander, or the paper-thin Demetrius and Lysander, to say nothing of Claudio or Bertram. But the hero? If so, then what, precisely is this play about? What, indeed, does Bassanio even learn over the course of this play? Nothing that I can readily see.

No, if there is a hero for the play, it is Portia. But she is a difficult character to play. If she is a hero, she must grow and change over the course of the play, as Rosalind does in As You Like It. But Portia, from the first, is a rather formidable character, having successfully circumvented her father’s will to choose the man of her choosing (a man, it must be noted, who it seems to her will be childishly easy for her to control, bringing nothing of his own in way of wealth, title or life experience to the match). And at the end, she manifests nearly divine powers, rescuing all of Antonio’s ventures from oblivion without the slightest explanation as to how she has done it. This has tempted some critics, and surely some directors, to see in Portia a kind of divine principle. She is the personification of the mercy she advocates for in the trial scene. That is a workable reading of the play, and it turns the play into an anti-Semitic theological tract, with Portia standing in for Christ and Shylock as stubborn Jewry. But if Portia is to be human, and limited, then her confrontation with Shylock must have more profound consequences to her than it appears to on its face.

The key moment, for Portia, is her key speech, beginning, "The quality of mercy is not strained." Where does this speech come from? Properly, Portia should have prepared for this trial, having been briefed by old Bellario as to how to defeat Shylock. What game, then, is she playing in this scene? Why have the trial at all, when she knows, from the outset, that Shylock cannot have his bond? Presumably, she is playing to trap Shylock. Is this the way for anyone to behave towards another human being? Who does Portia think she is?

She thinks she’s God, that’s who she thinks she is. She is the richest girl in Venice and a control freak, and she is going to show off just what she can do. And then she gives this speech. What is its effect, on Shylock, on the audience, and on herself?

The context should be recalled:

PORTIA: Do you confess the bond?


PORTIA: Then must the Jew be merciful.

SHYLOCK: On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.

PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strained. (etc) 

"The quality of mercy is not strained" – and yet, it was this same Portia who said, "then must the Jew be merciful." Who is straining mercy here?  Portia, who is plainly able through wit and wealth to manipulate and control everybody on the stage, must hear herself saying this speech, and hear how it redounds upon her head. She, after all, has set out to trap Shylock, ensnare him in a deadly web of his own weaving. Who is straining her to be merciful? And yet, she goes forward, prosecuting Shylock precisely according to the law, as he would have prosecuted Antonio according to his bond. This is poetic justice, yes, and it is theatrically effective. But it is in no wise mercy.

For the fullest appreciation of this irony, Portia herself should understand it; we should see it in her face. If not, then she is reduced, the play becomes rather more cynical about everyone involved, but it will still work supremely well so long as the audience appreciates what she does not.

This is the heart of the play, and the reason to put it on. Is this also the anti-Semitic heart, the triumph of Christian mercy over Jewish law? It can certainly be played that way. But it need not be. The Christians, after all, do not manifest any more mercy, really, than does the Jew. More to the point, there is a very close parallel in Jewish scripture to this very situation. In the Book of Jonah, the prophet is called upon by God to prophesy doom to the people of Nineveh – a non-Jewish city, it should be noted. He refuses, and flees his commission. He is, of course, forced to fulfill it by God and by a whale, and, once told of their impending doom, the people of Nineveh duly repent. Jonah sits himself outside the city to witness divine retribution should it come, and when divine mercy upon the repentant stays the execution, he exclaims that this is why he did not want to prophesy: because he knew that God, being merciful, would not execute justice upon the deserving wicked.

Jonah’s spirit is very close to Shylock’s; both mingle justice with spite and forget that we are talking about God’s creatures, all of whom He loves, and that executing justice is therefore painful to God, and should be to us. Is Jonah’s – and Shylock’s – error a Jewish error? Perhaps – that is certainly, at any rate, what Merchant suggests, and I think it is suggested as well by the Bible. But it is an error from a Jewish perspective as well as a Christian, and God is more merciful to Jonah than Portia is to Shylock. Shylock is not merely a Jew who is villainous; he is a very Jewish villain. It is difficult for a production to honestly portray that without making Shylock the Jew as villain – but that is the challenge. This is not a play about anti-Semitism. It is a play about the quality of mercy, and its absence entirely from the the world of Venice, Jewish and Christian, in which the play takes place.

So: did Richard Rose’s production rise to the challenge?


My honest answer would be: both yes and no.

Rose’s production has been reviled for being trendy, stuffed with concepts that are unconnected to the play and do not work theatrically; it has also been attacked for bad acting, bad costumes, and bad set design. With a couple of exceptions, I think these criticisms are unwarranted. The production has significant flaws, but it also has significant achievements. And what I think most critics were really objecting to was that his production is to some degree unpleasant. But this is, to a considerable degree, an unpleasant play, and Rose’s version of that unpleasantness is very true to the text.

The production opens with a wild pig dance. Several men in business attire are wearing golden pig masks, and chase down another man in a bull mask, who is ultimately subdued and placed in a noose. The raucous music with which these antics are backgrounded, the masks are removed, and the bull is revealed to be Antonio, whose opening line, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" and essential character are immediately contextualized. This is a great way to open the play. We know at once that Antonio is sad amidst revelry; that his sadness is a kind of self-indulgence, a longing for martyrdom that would make everyone love him specially. Antonio is the pursued bull – he wants to be pursued, wants to be caught, wants to be slaughtered. He is not a Christ figure; he has a Christ complex. All this comes out immediately and vividly by means of the pig dance.

Immediately afterward, in the conversation of Antonio’s various friends (who have been indulging at an opulent feast, presumably at his expense), we learn that these are a group of distinctly unpleasant young men with a distinctly creepy affection for one another. Most productions of Merchant worry about protests from the ADL; this production should worry about protests from PFLAG. The homoerotic undertone of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is generalized; all these young men appear to be members of a particularly nasty Cambridge clique, in love with themselves, their clothes, their money, and disdainful of anyone on the outside, most especially women. Again, this is very fine; we know precisely what kind of world this play is in, and it is a context that very much works with the text, howsoever unpleasant it is.

We are to be treated to a cynical Merchant, more akin to a problem play like Troilus and Cressida than a comedy like Much Ado. And if there is a single phrase that could encapsulate the spirit of the production, it would be: love of money is the root of all evil. And boy, does everybody in this production love money. Bassanio is far more charming and pleasant than Shylock, but no less greedy; his interest in Portia is quite frankly mercantile. When he wins the prize, he runs about the stage praising her portrait that he plucked from the lead casket, not even noticing Portia herself standing there. After this start, how surprised can anyone be when he gives away her ring to Balthazar (the young lawyer that is Portia herself in disguise, but he doesn’t know that)?

Similarly, the Lorenzo/Jessica romance is revealed for all its hollowness. In the other productions of Merchant I have seen, Lorenzo is portrayed as a true lover and Jessica as repentant of losing her Jewishness (which is emphatically not in the text, though her line, "I am never merry when I hear sweet music" may well be an allusion to her enduring Jewish nature, as Shylock also hates music, and Jews were generally reputed in Shakespeare’s day – quite contrarily to fact – to hate music). In this production, it is manifest that Lorenzo only married her for her money, and Jessica repents not of a Jewish nostalgia so much as the realization of the poor quality of the porridge for which she has sold her birthright. She hated her father for his puritanism, his hatred of joy and pleasure. So she has gone over to Lorenzo, and discovered that he and his set are dedicated to a dissolute life of empty pleasures – and it’s plain to her that he married her only to feed upon her.

A Merchant that is cynical about Belmont and Venice both, but that does not idealize Shylock in contrast, could be quite fine. And, as you can tell, I felt that this production frequently achieved fine effects and clever interpretations, and not the ones that I am used to seeing on the Stratford stage. The performances – particulalry the peripheral ones – were also generally fine. The whole crew of hangers-on about Antonio and Bassanio – Solanio, Salarino, Gratiano, Lorenzo – are portrayed with wicked vitality; Jean Michel le Gal makes a particularly fine Lorenzo, perfect in his aristocratic and alcoholic sloth while somehow remaining charming enough that his conquest of Jessica is entirely convincing. Sara Topham’s Jessica was convincing as well in both her hatred of her father and her disappointment with Lorenzo. Ron Kennell makes for a particularly shameless Lancelot Gobbo, a much better choice than trying to make him cute, as I’ve seen before, and Raquel Duffy does a fine turn as an intelligent Nerissa, a Marcie to Portia’s Peppermint Patty. The set and costumes, moreover, for all that they have been reviled in the press, I thought did a fine job of supporting the play. The production is set in no period; the costumes are a pastiche of contemporary, period and utterly fantastic, the only common element being that the women look awful in the dresses. (Sara Topham said at a Q&A that the only way she could play her hideous post-elopement dress was as follows: "I spent 100,000 ducats on this dress, and it looked so much better on Kate Moss!") I approve of this choice; setting it in period makes the production a comment on a particular period in history, which generally does not serve the play well. And the relatively spare set allowed for a variety of different effects with lighting, such as the creation of a church for a wonderfully appalling and sacreligious staging of the scene where the "guys" are making fun of Shylock’s misery at losing his daughter and his ducats (sacreligious in part because Solanio makes visual the pun about the "stones" that Jessica stole from her father by jerking on the palm frond that he holds while he kneels in "prayer"). The comedy of the suitors is very funny and well staged, and many other moments that are not necessarily played for comedy draw appropriate laughs (as, for example, Bassanio not paying attention to Portia after he has won her, discussed above).

The principal performers, unfortunately, do not always rise to the general level of the company. Severn Thompson as Portia Sean Arbuckle as Bassanio did the best; she was a convincing aristocrat, and her snobbery and hauteur did not obscure her real charm or her excitement at finally escaping her father’s clutches and going off with Bassanio, while he was as charming as I’ve ever seen him without letting us forget just how mercenary his whole enterprise is. (I’d really like to see him play Petruchio next year.) Scott Wentworth, one of my favorite actors on the Stratford stage, was rather subdued as Antonio. We got his sadness, we got his somewhat unhealthy affection for Bassanio, but in many scenes he seemed more weary of life than doom-eager, and that’s not quite right. And Graham Greene, as Shylock, was the weakest simply because he did not project well. We sat very close to the front of the stage, and hence had a good view of his face, and we thought his expressions were over-subtle; I can’t imagine what a spectator in the back row might have made of his performance. He was stronges, though, when he let his rage come through, and if one is going to be best at one point in the play, that is it.

There were a few choices in the production that I thought were problematic (at a minimum), and that I think merit mention. First, and most incomprehensible, is the director’s decision to have Portia read the "quality of mercy" speech from a brief. This makes no sense dramatically or in terms of character, and it utterly crushes what is arguably the most important moment in the entire play. I can’t imagine what he was thinking. Second, and nearly as incomprehensible, is the director’s decision to have the cast as a whole hold Antonio down with ropes as Shylock prepares to cut his pound of flesh. These are Antonio’s friends. There is no plausible explanation for their action. Other than playing up Antonio as a Christ figure, there is no reason for the scene, but given that it makes no sense that is insufficient justification. Third, the play closes, disappointingly, with Jessica reciting a line from Avinu Malkeinu, the concluding prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy, a line that expresses her feeling of unworthiness and repentance. That’s a fine sentiment, but sentimental recollection of her Jewishness is absolutely to be avoided in thinking about Jessica, and I’m sorry that Rose didn’t remember that. She has regrets, but that is not what she is regretting.

Two other problematic choices, though, I thought ultimately served the production. One was the decision to have Antonio striking a variety of vendors and suchlike who are cluttering about the stage as he is being led to his doom. The obvious allusion is to Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple. This moment struck a variety of reviewers as forced, but I didn’t think so; I thought it was appropriate for Antonio to finally express some vigorous emotion, and he does have a Christ complex; it makes perfect sense for his character to engage in a theatrical stunt like this. The second choice is to have Shylock become progressively more Jewish in his mein and dress the closer we get to the trial scene. At the outset, he is dressed in a business suit; when we see him next, having lost his daughter and his ducats, he’s wearing the suit still but also a tallis and a yarmulke. Then, as he prepared for the trial, he is fitted for a Hasidic costume of gabardine and fur hat. What does this mean? Well, one interpretation, the most anti-Semitic, would be that Shylock is becoming more Jewish as he gets more vengeful, revealing his true nature in each aspect. I interpreted it differently; that Shylock’s Jewish attire is a form of defiance and spite, a visual rejection of Venetian society and any place for himself in it. That is also pretty anti-Semitic – Jewish garb still stands for the determination to follow an evil, anti-social path, albeit now this is Shylock’s choice rather than the director’s. But I think it is a choice very consonant with the text, so I really can’t complain.

I have gleaned from a variety of sources that Rose was a difficult director in rehearsal. It may be that this production on opening night did not gel as well as it did when I saw it. It is also unquestionable that not all of Rose’s choices are good ones – a couple are, I think, indefensible. But the production as a whole is strongly conceived, makes sense of the text, is powerfully moving (though certainly not uplifting), and, on the night I saw it, very well acted. I would strongly recommend seeing it. Even if you hate it as much as most critics have, it will make you think. Stratford needs more productions that achieve that effect.