Review: On her third helping of The Merchant of Venice, Judi Herman has a discomfiting but enthralling evening

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_157 Don't let the buggers grind you down. Try to come over as laid back. They wear a strange eclectic mix of what they see as achingly trendy, or sharp city wear, set off with flamboyant footwear in bright – too bright – poster colours. So wear a dingy blouson over an old cardigan and keep your dignity, simply wipe off their spit when they show their contempt for you. This could be what's going through Shylock's mind in Makram J Khoury's finely calibrated performance, which positively radiates a relaxed gravitas.

It is to be hoped that Khoury, the popular, award-winning Palestinian-Israeli actor didn't base it too closely on his experience as a man caught between two worlds in his native country. Certainly when Christian Venice shows its contempt by spitting on Shylock's "Jewish gabardine", the gasp of horror that runs through the audience is even more of a shock wave than the similar audience reaction when this treatment is meted out to Jonathan Pryce's dignified Shylock at Shakespeare's Globe.

Khoury’s trajectory is frighteningly clear here, from distracted father outraged by his daughter Jessica’s's elopement and her profligate spending and disregard for her dead mother's ring, to vengeful would-be killer. Given the special disgust displayed towards him by Jamie Ballard's alarmingly volatile Antonio, it's hardly surprising he seizes the opportunity to whet his knife and prepare his scales in open court, now entirely indifferent to what the hostile Christians make of his behaviour.

This is the third time this year that I have seen this problematical play and each time I am struck by how little stage time Shylock shares with Jessica. Shakespeare magnifies the awkwardness of what today would be dubbed their dysfunctional relationship by showing so little of it onstage. And, in the few moments they do share together, Jessica is in turmoil over her imminent elopement and the need to deceive her father to make her escape.  Here director Polly Findlay and designer Johannes Schültz trap Scarlett Brookes’ awkward, gawky Jessica at an impossibly high window in her father’s house. So there even less connection as he leaves for the dinner with his new creditor Bassanio that will give her the window of opportunity she needs to escape with her Christian lover Lorenzo (James Corrigan), as well as her father’s jewels and ducats.

Indeed Findlay, sharing her vision with Schültz and costume designer Anette Guther, builds an especially alienating dystopic Venice, where it’s easy for the audience to share Shylock’s discomfiture. Belmont, wealthy heiress Portia‘s nearby estate, similarly offers little in the way of refuge, even to its owner and her chosen guests from the city, let alone the foreign suitors at whom this Venetian lady pokes fun. The audience is reflected in the huge brass mirrored wall atop which Jessica appears and there is nowhere to hide on a thrust stage with only a mysterious (and perhaps more distracting than hypnotic) pendulum on which to rest the eye, joined briefly later by three symbolic ‘caskets’ lowered from above.

There is certainly nowhere to hide in Venice or Belmont, from creditors in the city, from the whim of a dead father, controlling his daughter’s choice of husband from beyond the grave. And there is nothing to distract from the actors, who first take the stage from seats on Brechtian benches at the rear. If anything, Guther’s flamboyant, jarringly disparate costumes are the set dressing. Patsy Ferran’s intelligent Portia might be grateful to don sober lawyer’s garments, after the hard poster colours of the little shift dresses that seem to be current Venetian jet set fashion here.

There is, though, a shock awaiting her at court. For at the centre of Findlay’s reading of the play is what turns out to be a love triangle, where Portia sees what the audience has known from the start – she must share her new husband Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) with Ballard’s tortured (and I don’t mean by Shylock), depressive Antonio, who claims him with a desperate kiss as he awaits his fate. It certainly makes sense for Portia to channel her discomfiture and anger into her inspired and literally blood-chilling case against Shylock. So this ‘comedy’ becomes even more of a problem play, if Portia and Bassanio’s wedded bliss looks uncertain before their marriage is even consummated.

Meanwhile, Khoury’s now coldly focused, implacable Shylock makes the most of his day in court, almost whetting his knife on Antonio’s bare chest. No wonder Antonio screams and cringes. And though Shylock loses everything, he is perhaps more incredulous than broken and makes it clear that playing for sympathy - from court or audience – is beneath him.  Even he is upstaged by a tsunami of banknotes raining down on the court – effective but perhaps heavy-handed symbolism.

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_148

By the time Portia and her faithful waiting gentlewoman Nerissa (an especially warm and literally supportive performance from Nadia Albina – these girls are close) return to Belmont, Jessica and her Lorenzo do not look entirely comfortable with each other either. Jessica seems almost aggressive as she and Lorenzo top each other with their references to pairs of mythical lovers who might have shared such an enchanted night as theirs, alone on Portia’s estate while its mistress is away at court. The magic should have been enhanced by a floor gradually lit by candle after candle filling the stage, the effect doubled by that mirror wall. But their brash brightness is too obvious a visualisation of Lorenzo’s description of "the floor of heaven thick inlaid with patines of bright gold"; the patina on the brass of that mirror would have done nicely. Perhaps the only real beauty in the evening is provided by the choristers, "young-eyed cherubim" indeed, to quote Lorenzo again, singing Marc Tritschler’s unearthly plainsong from the heights of the set. It’s a particularly discomfiting and alienating reading of this difficult play and though the creative vision is clear, it is perhaps too much of a straitjacket for the drama.

By Judi Herman

The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 September (broadcast live in cinemas on 22 July). 7pm & 1pm. £5-£60. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, CV37 6BB; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk