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The Arcola Theatre has a deserved reputation for adventurous and successful productions, but its main house is less accommodating than it looks. The low-ceilinged yet cavernous former clothing factory, when it is configured in more conventional theatrical arrangements (as, with this production, in traverse), tends to encourage overplaying in order to fill the space, although such a style is often at odds with the material.
Here, Julia Pascal’s meditation upon The Merchant of Venice requires personal intimacy as well as the playing of public rituals, such as the climactic trial sequence, but apart from Paul Herzberg’s Shylock, few of the company manage such a distinction. It does not help the third Merchant I have seen this year attain a distinctiveness for itself.
Nor, surprisingly, does Pascal’s treatment. She has a successful record as a writer/director of using classic texts as the backbones for examinations of Jewish identity, from a harrowing Dybbuk to a reimagined Yiddish Queen Lear. Here, though, she diverges far less than usual from the core text. We see virtually all of Shakespeare’s play, with a few short dialogue additions, some vague movement sequences and the perfunctory framing device that the performance is a dress rehearsal by a modern-day English company taking place in the Venice ghetto in front of a single tourist, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who narrowly escaped the Nazi death camps.
This part is not simply written for, but also uses the actual biography of, actress Ruth Posner. Posner can be magnificent; here, she has oddly little to work with. After the initial scene-setting, she merely has a few brief interventions urging Shylock’s daughter Jessica not to convert to Christianity, and not a peep during the trial. Nor does it help that the dramatic levels are fogged: we cannot tell when players are Shakespearean characters, when English actors, when imagined carnival or Inquisition figures, or what is being examined or imagined by whom. Issues of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism are located almost entirely in the extraneous material; they seem scarcely to penetrate the problematic Shakespearean text itself. I never thought I would be accusing Julia Pascal of timidity in this respect.
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