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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.