Problem comedy treads a fine line
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Rebecca Gatward’s production was beginning to look jinxed. First, Gatward lost her Portia during the show’s preview run, resulting in its press night being postponed for a fortnight. Then, when it finally did open, a rather sheepish Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole came onstage after a protracted interval to explain that Gratiano had come down with something gastric and would be replaced for the second half. To an extent, then, the following judgments are provisional.
Nevertheless, my principal apprehensions proved groundless. I had been worried that the Globe audience, which is known to enjoy a laugh at every opportunity and many that are not meant to be, might respond too frivolously to what is today the uneasiest of Shakespeare’s plays (even though it is classed as a comedy). Gatward and her cast, however, shepherd our amusement into the proper areas, so that none taints the treatment of Shylock the Jewish moneylender. An impersonation of Shylock by a minor character is all oy-vey Jewishness, but there is no scintilla of ostentatious Hebraism in John McEnery’s performance in the role itself. A straggling beard and a difference in costume (“Jewish gaberdene” instead of odd, hybrid, pinstripe Jacobean gowns) are all that distinguish Shylock from the Gentile businessmen in this Venice.
Nor does McEnery play Shylock as villainous. His “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is born of an honest vexation rather than either malice or its modish alternative, noble suffering at the hands of an anti-Semitic Venetian community. The murderous nature of the contract he offers Antonio seems driven by the latter’s persecution of him, particularly as the pound-of-flesh condition is only introduced at the
end of a scene in which Dale Rapley’s Antonio, always morose, bursts into pathological hatred of Shylock. Even in the trial scene, once the tide has turned and Shylock’s earlier exaltation of the young lawyer Balthazar (alias the disguised Portia) is flung back in his face by a crowing Gratiano, the mockery seems personal rather than sectarian. Whether this amounts to defusing the problem of anti-Semitism or to glossing over it is a moot point.
Philip Cumbus plays Bassanio as disquietingly aware of his appeal to both sexes. He seems deliberately to play on Antonio’s feelings for him to secure the latter’s agreement to stand surety, even kissing him hard on the mouth once consent has been obtained. And yet Antonio knows that the money is to sustain Bassanio’s suit toward Portia. There, too, when he succeeds in solving the riddle of the three caskets (or just guesses lucky) to win Portia’s hand, he positively preens.
As his friend Gratiano, Mark Rice-Oxley displayed the right amount of comic-sidekick verve, before illness struck and he was replaced by an unrehearsed but even more energetic Craig Gazey (doubling from his usual role as Launcelot Gobbo). I cannot imagine that the original Portia, Michelle Duncan, could have bettered her successor Kirsty Besterman, who finds an appealing blend of gravity and girlishness to suit all dramatic weathers.
But I wish the Globe would give over its policy of ending all productions with a dance by the cast. Really, seeing Shylock return to cut a merry little caper is nearly as ludicrous as the other spectacle this season of Othello and Desdemona rising from the dead and cavorting with each other. Still, this routine does provide a novel solution to the problem of the melancholy, unpaired-off and probably gay Antonio: Gatward couples him with a drag-queen courtesan.
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