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Seeing The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice within a few days helps bring focus to the question of which is Shakespeare’s knottiest play for a modern audience. While much of Shrew’s misogyny can be finessed (although not as easily as many directors think), the only alternative to sanctioning Merchant as an anti-Semitic play is to claim that it’s just the characters in it who are anti-Semites. All of them. Vocally, repeatedly and cruelly.
This is the interpretation offered in Darko Tresnjak’s modern-dress production for the New York-based Theatre for a New Audience, visiting Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the RSC’s Complete Works strand. Tresnjak makes some interesting connections: Launcelot Gobbo mutates from a clown into a persecutor once he leaves Shylock’s employ, defying even his own new master Lorenzo, who has eloped with the Jew’s daughter. Shylock’s own hatred is a matter of conditioning: when he accuses Antonio of “spit[ting] upon my Jewish gabardine” and “void[ing] your rheum upon my beard”, F. Murray Abraham pulls out a handkerchief to dab the imagined phlegm away, as if through repetition his response has become reflexive even when the actions are only recalled in imagination. In general, Abraham indicates that Shylock is an alien by giving him an excessive fondness for physical gesture.
This is a dog-eat-dog world: when two minor characters discuss the commercial misfortunes of Shylock’s victim Antonio, they chuckle like city traders at the downfall of a colleague/rival. But I cannot believe Shakespeare meant his audience to recognise and condemn this brutality.
Tresnjak’s production includes a host of little up-to-the-minute behavioural tics that are generally not to my taste, although Arnie Burton, turning the normally anonymous Balthazar into a hyper-efficient gay PA to Portia, steals scenes regularly and deliciously; in contrast, Kate Forbes’s Portia herself does not make much of an impression of any kind. What the show does, and enthusiastically, is to fulfil the brief in TFANA’s name: to make Shakespeare live for those not familiar with it, to make it vibrant and contemporary without (quite) going all Baz Luhrmann. Those who do know the play may wince that TFANA has also adopted one of the most famous Shakespeare misquotations: “All that glitters [sic] is not gold.”
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